Many birds are mentioned in the classic Christmas song the Twelve Days of Christmas but there’s only one tree, a pear tree.
I tend to struggle when asked what I would like for Christmas, so it occurred to me, how relevant are the twelve days of gifts for a gardener?
As today is the fourth day of Christmas I thought I’d look at the first four of the Twelve Days for inspired presents for gardeners.
“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree”
The British native grey partridge is not well known for climbing fruit trees, although its red legged French cousin does like to perch on a branch. Although generally considered a British folksong, there are clues that suggest the rhyme is French in origin. Not just the partridge’s roosting habits, but also the first line and the pear tree itself.
The French word for partridge is perdrix, pronounced ‘pear-dree’. It was suggested as early as the mid nineteenth century that the line should read ‘a partridge, une perdrix’. Which is all very well, but why would a French Christmas song start off in English? It would also be the only day when there is a repeat of the name of the gift, and rhythmically the line doesn’t scan as well.
So I prefer the partridge sitting in a pear tree. This would make wonderful gift for a gardener. You could eat the partridge as a change from a goose or turkey for Christmas dinner. Or have a pretend partridge, a pottery garden ornament or topiary bird.
However, if the gardener in question likes to encourage wildlife into their garden partridges are not the only wildlife that would benefit from this fruit tree. Pear blossom provides a food source in spring for honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. Later in the year, windfall pears will be eaten by many garden birds.
The pear tree is the main part of the gift though. Pears (Pyrus) are one of the world’s most popular fruits; they have been cultivated for some 7000 years, beginning in China, which is still a major producer. One of the earliest pears, Pyrus communis, is the ancestor of most of the European pear tree varieties.
Depending on the space available in the garden, the pear tree gift could be a full sized orchard tree. Or a trained espalier to fit along a fence or wall. Or even a single stemmed cordon tree small enough to grow in a pot in a small courtyard.
Pears are in season in the UK at Christmas. So although the branches may be bare, there is the fruit to enjoy as a counterpoint to the rich festive fare.
If you have room for only one pear tree, there are self fertile varieties, such as ‘Conference’, ’Concorde’ and ‘Williams bon Chrétien’. Pear trees are fascinating in many ways so I will be writing a blog purely on this popular fruit.
“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves”
Dovecotes used to be a common feature in larger gardens and estates in past centuries. Not so much for the dove’s romantic associations, but more prosaically as they provided another food source! Both the eggs and the young birds, or squabs, were eaten. As the birds were free to fly and feed from surrounding fields as well as those owned by the monastery or nobleman, they were often a source of contention. The birds would roost in dovecotes which gave their owners easy access to another useful resource for the gardener – dung.
The keeping of a pair of fan tailed turtle doves as pets or ornamental garden animals became popular in the 1920s. It would make an unusual present for a gardener, a small dovecote and a pair of doves, but it could be the start of an interesting hobby; fancy pigeon and dove keeping is still a popular pastime. And there’s the practical side of the eggs and the dung too.
Doves are closely related to pigeons, and share many of the same traits. Not least the eating of your brassicas and peas! So if you are giving two turtle doves to a gardener, they may like to net their winter vegetables first.
“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens”
More birds in the garden. Urban and suburban hen keeping has become popular again, and rightly so. Hens are sociable creatures, with each other and the humans who care for them. Three hens, French or otherwise, should lay enough eggs for an average family over much of the year.
Three is also a small enough number of hens to fit comfortably into a reasonably sized garden. If you’re short on space, purchase a smaller variety of hen rather than giving them less room. Depending on what you’re growing and how your garden is laid out, the hens can be allowed to roam freely for some of the time. They perform a useful task in the vegetable garden in the winter, scratching over the soil surface to find and eat larvae that would otherwise mature to eat your crops next season.
Our three French hens, like the two turtle doves, produce nitrogen rich manure. This should be composted for six-twelve months as it might otherwise ‘burn’ the plants it comes into contact with. Using wood shavings in the run and hen house helps create a final, well balanced compost.
“On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me four colly birds”
There is some dispute as to whether this gift is about ‘calling birds’ or ‘colly birds’. I’m not convinced that the difference is important. Calling birds can be a descriptive term for singing birds or for the female game birds used as bait to entice the males to the game keeper’s cottage. If we go with the former description, then we have four singing birds.
Colly bird is another name for the blackbird who serenades us in our gardens. So a colly bird is a calling bird anyway. The blackbird was also a culinary treat at festive occasions. Yes, the nursery rhyme about four and twenty blackbirds being baked in a pie can be taken literally!
So if you have a gardener who enjoys birdsong and feeds the birds in their garden, a gift of four colly birds may be appreciated. However, as male blackbirds are territorial, and as they stay in mating pairs, unless the gardener receiving them has a large garden, more than half an acre say, it may lead to a bit of a fight. Perhaps the present of a pie funnel shaped like a singing blackbird so the gardener can bake ‘blackbird pie’ may be safer.
Perhaps in 2014 I’ll write a blog or an eBook too include all the true love’s gifts and how they could be a present for a gardener.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with three singing humans, Aled Jones, Hayley Westenrar and Russell Watson, and their version of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
I’m off to find a partridge in a pear tree, well a bare rooted pear tree anyway; it’s the best time to be planting bare rooted trees and I have Christmas money to spend on myself!