Some people find January in the garden rather dismal. Perhaps that’s why many school gardening clubs don’t run during the winter months. On our plot we like to take the time to plan and prepare for the craziness of sowing, planting, weeding, watering and harvesting which is to come. But we also see the value in getting children outside in all weathers, getting stuck in. Winter is a good time to sort out your compost and rainwater harvesting, prepare paths, make planting plans, care for beneficial wildlife, look through seed catalogues and enjoy a bit of downtime, safe in the knowledge that even though little appears to be happening above the ground, it’s all ready to kick off down below.
We also like any excuse for a party and to let off steam so we’d recommend a spot of wassailing with your young growers at this time of year to help the trees and plants make it through the cold snap unscathed.
The traditional folk custom of wassailing fruit trees is still popular in our neighbouring county of Somerset but if your school is in a city centre, it might raise a few eyebrows. Don’t let that put you off!
Traditionally the idea was to begin the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber to ensure a good crop in the coming year. Cally is never slow to take the opportunity to baffle everyone with her knowledge of ancient languages and so she is able to say that the word wassail derives from the Old English words wæs (þu) hæl which means ‘be healthy’ or ‘be whole’.
Wassailing involves processing to your fruit trees carrying burning torches and banging pots and pans. Someone carries a special wassail pot filled with a steaming brew of ale, wine or cider. You form a circle around the largest or in our case, only apple tree and hang pieces of toast soaked in apple juice in the branches for the robins, who represent the ‘good spirits’ of the tree. A shotgun can be fired overhead to scare away evil spirits (on reflection, probably not a good idea in school) and the group sings
Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.
The ritual should be carried out on Twelfth Night, in other words 5th/6th January (or 16th/17th according to the old calendar which is a better time for schoolteachers who need a bit of time to plan these things). It’s good to find a special wassail bowl – either ceramic or wooden. (It’s amazing what turns up in the local charity shop.)
I use this recipe 1 quart apple juice,1 quart apple cider, 8 oranges, 4 lemons, 6 cinnamon sticks, 8 whole cloves, 6 whole allspice berries and 1/4 teaspoon mace but you’ll have to stick to apple juice for your young growers. In a large pot, combine apple juice (and cider). Wash and slice oranges and lemons. Throw them in. Create a spice bouquet by wrapping cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice, and mace in a piece of muslin. Add to juice. Simmer for at least 30 minutes. You can also float baked apples or toast in it but I don’t fancy that. Soak pieces of toast in it instead and hang them up for the birds.