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Flowering wild garlic in a Somerset woodland. (Photo by Peter Travers/PhotoPlus Magazine via Getty Images)

The expectant month, full of promise

By
Extract | 13 minute read
The Anglo-Saxon Eosturmonath suggests the east, and the dawn, and hope... So fling off your coat, plant your potatoes and breathe in the scent of wild garlic

Easter Sunday

April Fools’ Day

Easter Monday (local holiday in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey)

Last day of Passover (Jewish celebration)

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

Isra and Mi’raj (Muslim celebration)

St George’s Day (England)

 

 

The Romans named April Aprilis, possibly from the verb aperire (to open), and although no one quite knows why, it fits in well with the atmosphere of the month: buds bursting and windows being flung wide as warmth arrives, at least briefly, between showers. We are past the spring equinox now and life is tripping over itself to get going, to get on. The soft haze of lime-green tips over dark winter branches that appeared last month is filling out daily, and colourful garden flowers start to join the white blossom of blackthorn, damson and pear, filling the air with scent, luring in emerging bees in a frenzy of pollination.

The Anglo-Saxons called it Eosturmonath, the month of the goddess Ëostre, of whom little is known but much imagined, as there seems an irresistibly etymological link between Ëostre and Easter. The word Ëostre could point to oestrogen, to womanhood and the potential for pregnancy, to eggs and bunnies themselves. It also suggests the east, and the dawn, and hope. All conjecture, but it certainly fits well with this burgeoning and expectant month, full of promise.

 

THE SKY

Moon phases

3rd quarter – 8th April

New moon – 16th April

1st quarter – 22nd April

Full moon – 30th April

In the night sky this month

2nd – Conjunction of Mars and Saturn for several weeks, but at their closest tonight low in the southern dawn sky.

7th – Close approach of moon with Saturn tonight, low above the southern horizon before dawn.

17th – Close approach of moon with Venus tonight, low above the western horizon from about 8.30p.m.; difficult to see as the moon is only a day old.

22nd & 23rd – Lyrid meteor shower, moon sets after midnight, leaving a good, dark sky for meteor-spotting.

30th – Close approach of moon with Jupiter tonight, highest at 1.46 a.m., 22 degrees above the southern horizon.

 

Constellation of the month – Hydra

This month the water snake, Hydra, can be seen rearing up from the horizon in the south-western sky when viewed around 11p.m. It is a southern-hemisphere star, seen best south of the equator, but it can be spotted in the northern hemisphere between January and May and reaches its highest point in April. This is the largest of all the constellations, slithering a full 100 degrees across the sky. However, it has only one particularly bright star, Alphard, an orange giant with three times the mass of the sun; this is the star that appears on the Brazilian flag. Hydra is an adaptation of a Babylonian constellation, and so one of the earliest to have been plucked out of the sky.

Lyrid meteor showers, and observing meteors

This month sees the Lyrid meteor shower. Meteors might be seen at any time from the 16th to the 25th, but are most likely to come in a burst at dawn on the 22nd. The Lyrids radiate from the constellation Lyra, but will appear all over the sky. You can hope to see up to 20 meteors an hour at the shower’s peak, and about a quarter of the Lyrid’s meteors have persistent trains: ionised gas trails that glow for a few seconds after they first streak across the sky. Meteors appear when the earth travels through the debris left by a comet, in this case Comet Thatcher, which last came close in 1861. Each meteor seen streaking through the sky is likely to have been caused by a tiny fragment of between 1 mm and 1 cm in diameter, burning up in the earth’s atmosphere. Just before dawn is always the best time to see meteor showers. At dawn the planet rotates so that our position upon it is the leading point as we hurtle through space, sweeping up comet particles.

 

WEATHER

April has a reputation for showers, but it is actually one of the drier months. It is possible that we just notice the showers more because of their nature: April days can often start warm and sunny but then the few wisps of cloud build into towering cumulonimbus rain clouds, drop their load, then disperse into blue sky again. This pattern occurs when there is a contrast between warm surface air and colder air higher up, and this often happens in April, when the sun warms the earth but cool northerly or north-westerly air is blowing in from Greenland or the Arctic. Despite balmy potential, sharp frosts are common this month, and there can still be heavy snow in the hills.

Average temperatures (°c): London 11, Glasgow 11

Average sunshine hours per day: London 5, Glasgow 5

Average days rainfall: London 16, Glasgow 22

Average rainfall total (mm): London 43, Glasgow 50

Day length

During the course of April, day length increases by:

1 hour and 50 minutes, to 14 hours and 47 minutes (London)

2 hours and 11 minutes, to 15 hours and 17 minutes (Glasgow)

 

THE SEA

Average sea temperature

Orkney: 7.8°c Scarborough: 8.1°c Blackpool: 8.9°c Brighton: 9.6°c Penzance: 10.6°c

Spring and neap tides

The spring tide is the most extreme tide of the month, with the highest rises and falls, and the neap tide is the least extreme, with the smallest. Exact timings vary around the coast, but expect each around the following dates:

Spring tides: 1st–2nd and 17th–18th

Neap tides: 9th–10th and 23rd–24th

 

THE GARDEN

Planting by the moon

Full moon to 3rd quarter: 1st–8th.

Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.

3rd quarter to new moon: 8th–16th. Prune. Harvest for storage. Fertilise and mulch the soil.

New moon to 1st quarter: 16th–22nd. Sow crops that develop below ground. Dig the soil.

1st quarter to full moon: 22nd–30th. Sow crops that develop above ground. Plant seedlings and young plants.

Jobs in the garden

• Plant out your potatoes into trenches, with enough space between rows to earth them up – cover the green stems – once they start to grow. Plant a few earlies into big pots too, for a quicker crop.

• Start growing tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes and winter squashes in pots on the windowsill or in a greenhouse.

• Start cutting your lawn, and re-seed any bare patches. You will soon have it looking welcoming again.

Glut of the month – sorrel 

Sorrel is a perennial plant that pops up early in the year, with delicious lemony but savoury leaves. They collapse dramatically, like spinach, so pick and cook plenty. Wash sorrel well and remove the central stalk by pulling it back on itself before cooking.

• Put a third of a pack of butter in a pan, drop in big handfuls of sorrel leaves and tip in just-boiled and drained potatoes. Mix until the butter melts and the sorrel wilts into a mushy and sharp sauce, of sorts.

• Sorrel’s acidity is good with oily salmon. Cook handfuls of washed sorrel in a little water until it collapses, then squeeze out excess liquid. Process with a splash of cream and two egg yolks, then warm in a saucepan until the sauce thickens. Pour over baked salmon.

• Use sorrel in a frittata. Cook and drain it first, then mix loosely into beaten eggs, perhaps with some young peas, and cook.

Garden task – start a hardy annual cut-flower bed

There are few greater harvests than cut flowers, few more luxurious returns for a bit of digging and sowing: vases of flowers all summer long and bunches to hand magnanimously out to friends, too. Hardy annuals are particularly dependable and abundant, and should be the core of your patch. They are the simplest of the cut flowers to grow, as they can be started off by sowing direct into the Ground. A word of warning before you do this: this time of year is wildly unpredictable and you should hold off if the weather or the soil is particularly cold. Pre-warm the soil by covering with black or clear plastic, or cover your newly sown rows with cloches. Either or both will give your seedlings a gentler start during this unsettled meteorological spell. Some of the best hardy annuals to try: calendula, cornflower, larkspur, Ammi majus, nigella, Cerinthe, Molucella and Griffithii. These will give you a good variety of colour and shape, and a mix of showy performers and background fillers; even if you grow nothing else, you will have many joyous bunches. Work your soil until it is fine and crumbly, make a drill and crumble compost along it, then finely sow the seeds all along the drill; cover, water and label. If you have space in a greenhouse, sow a few seeds into seed trays indoors too, as backup.

 

KITCHEN

In season

• Halibut, crab and salmon are now coming in, and shrimp, whitebait and lobster are in season.

• The first peas from the garden start to come through, as well as early radishes and the very first spears of asparagus. Rocket, spring onions, watercress and wild nettles can be found, and the last of the purple sprouting broccoli.

• There is still plenty of rhubarb to be had.

• Spring lamb is available, with the first meat coming from the south-west of the country. It is very tender and succulent, and mild in flavour.

Ingredient of the month – Jersey Royals

The extreme south-facing slopes of Jersey have been cropping the earliest, most tender potatoes of the season for around 130 years. The soil is light and well drained on the steepest fields, known as côtils, which slope down to the beaches, so it warms quickly in the spring sun. There is little risk of frost because of proximity to the sea so the potatoes are planted early, grow fast, soft and sweet, and are dug early; these best fields’ crops have to be lifted by hand, as machinery cannot cope with the gradient. If you spot some, buy them and boil them up with a sprig of mint the same day, and eat them with a little butter and salt, or with sorrel.

 

Eggs and Easter

The association of eggs with Easter is directly related to the Lent fast. Lent was once a month-long foray into veganism for everyone in the land, with all meat and animal products out of bounds. Of all the raw animal products, eggs keep best, and it would have been fairly easy to build up a surplus ready for the breaking of the fast on Easter Sunday morning. There might even be so many that some could be given to children to decorate.

But eggs and this moment in the year go back even further. This is a time of burgeoning fertility and promise in the landscape, and a particularly important and joyous moment in the year to our farming ancestors, after the trials of winter. Not only are eggs particularly abundant at this time of year, they also encapsulate this moment of renewal and birth rather perfectly. It is thought that the pagan feast of Ëostre once marked this moment, in celebration of all of the new life and foods that tell us that the farming year has begun, and it may even have provided a handy pre-existing celebration of reawakening and hope with which to merge the story of Jesus’s resurrection.

 

Eggs Benedict

We are used to having eggs all year round, but like any bird, chickens want to lay in spring, and eggs are particularly rich and nutritious now, and mightily plentiful. Put a perfectly poached new season’s egg on a pedestal of early spinach, smoked ham and toasted muffin, and crown it with a silky (egg-based) hollandaise sauce – a luxurious way to use up a surplus.

Serves 2

Ingredients

200 g baby spinach

Knob of butter

Whole nutmeg, for grating

Salt and pepper

2 English muffins

4 very fresh eggs

75 g smoked ham

For the hollandaise sauce

100 g butter

2 egg yolks

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp Dijon mustard

White wine vinegar

Method

Wash the spinach well, drop it into a large saucepan over a medium heat and close the lid. The leaves will quickly collapse and cook in their own steam. Remove from the heat, tip into a colander and use the back of a large spoon to squeeze out excess liquid. Chop the spinach roughly, then return to the pan with the knob of butter, a fresh grating of nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm. Next make the hollandaise sauce. Melt the butter in a pan. Place a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water and whisk together the yolks, lemon juice and mustard, then slowly add the butter, whisking to emulsify as you go. If it gets too thick you can add a little water. Add a dash of vinegar, and salt and pepper to season. Keep warm over the simmering water. Split and toast the muffins. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add a splash of vinegar. Turn the heat down to its lowest, then crack each egg into a cup and lower it gently into the water. Cook for 3 minutes exactly, then lift and drain onto kitchen paper. Put a bed of spinach and ham onto each half of muffin, and top each with an egg and the hollandaise sauce.

 

Wild greens pesto

Dollop this on egg dishes or alongside sausages or baked chicken. If you are using nettle tops, be sure to first blanch them in boiling water for a minute to remove the sting.

Makes 1 jar full

Ingredients

1 large handful of wild garlic leaves or other wild greens, washed well, nettles blanched, drained and patted dry

60 g blanched and toasted hazelnuts

60 g hard goat’s cheese, finely grated

150 ml extra virgin olive oil

Juice of ¼ lemon

Salt and pepper

Method

Put the leaves, nuts and cheese into a food processor and blitz just enough to leave a little texture. Add the olive oil and lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Blitz to combine. Serve immediately or spoon into a jar and cover with a layer of oil before storing in the fridge for a few days.

NATURE

Look out for:

• The arrival of the first swallows and swifts later in the month. Listen out for swifts’ distinctive, high-pitched, piercing call as they wheel around the sky.

• This is a moment of great movement for many other birds. House martins, whitethroats, willow warblers, nightingales and cuckoos also return from their winter journeys, while visiting geese, swans and waders leave for cooler climates.

• Although not yet at full volume, the dawn chorus is increasing all the time. This month blackbirds and song thrushes join the party.

• On woodland floors look out for the flowers of wood anemones and, late in the month, the first bluebells.

• Cowslips, hairy violet and pasque flower are in flower on chalk downland, and spectacular shows of snake’s-head fritillaries can be seen on damp meadows.

• Peacock, speckled wood and orange-tip butterflies emerge.

 

Wild garlic

This is the short, sweet spell on the woodland floor when warmth has increased enough for growth, but the canopy has not yet expanded enough to shade out the understorey. Plants leap into life to take advantage of this temporal niche, leafing up, blooming, setting seed and vanishing by high summer. Wild garlic is one of those plants that in some parts of the country emerged last month, but is most certainly in leaf everywhere now and will be in flower by the end of the month and into May. It is a native plant and considered an indicator of ancient woodland, especially when it grows, as it often does, alongside bluebells. This is the time to visit the woods to pick and use wild garlic: it is at its best when it is young and fresh and can be past its finest by the time the flowers appear. It is not hard to find, carpeting huge swathes of woodland and smelling strongly of garlic, and you should cut – not pull – yourself a good few handfuls to use chopped in scrambled eggs, in savoury scones, or stir fries. Wild-garlic gathering is a great place to start if you are new to foraging, as it is easy to find and to use, but do take care not to confuse the leaves with lily of the valley or autumn crocus. The smell is the best indicator.

The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2018, by Lia Leendertz, is published by Unbound