It is hard to alter the basic structure of our soil, but we can gradually improve it by adding organic matter. We can alter the amount of water in the garden by harvesting rainfall, storing and directing it to where it is needed. However, sunshine is a difficult commodity to replace. Commercial growers have developed light bulbs that can substitute for sunlight, but they will always be running at an energy deficit. Without the colossal nuclear reactor at the centre of the solar system, life on Earth simply would not exist.
Through millennia of evolution plants have developed the unique ability to capture the Sun’s energy through their own ‘solar panels’, and convert it to carbohydrate for later use. Most of the energy on the planet is in some way derived from the sun (apart from nuclear). As yet, apart from plants (and a few other organisms) nothing has evolved quite as efficient or useful a skill, so for the time being, we must rely on plants as our primary means of capturing solar energy.
Sun is fundamental to the garden, dictating where plants will thrive or die, and conducting their circadian rhythms. Much is said about the influence of the moon on plants, but it is the Sun which is the denominating factor in the equation. The rhythms of the planet are fundamentally tied to the sun’s passage across the sky, waking in the morning with its arrival and sleeping at night when it disappears. In the temperate regions, our environments fluctuate according to the seasonal changes of the Sun’s angle. Conserving our energy during the dark months of the winter, and celebrating the abundance of warmth and light in the long days of spring and summer.
Heliotropism is the name given to the action of plants that turn to follow the sun. In Ancient Greece the movement of sunflowers was explained by the legend of Clytie and Helios. Clytie was a water nymph, who loved the sun god, Helios. Unfortunately Helios was besotted by another woman, but Clytie would watch, every day, as Helios raced his chariot across the sky. After nine days of watching him without food or drink, she became rooted to the spot and was transformed into a sunflower. Whilst sunflowers are growing, by altering concentrations of minerals in its tissues, the whole plant, leaves buds and all, will turn to track the Suns passage across the sky, ensuring it absorbs as much sunshine as possible. Once the flower buds have opened they will stop moving and remain facing east to maximise their absorption of heat, making them as attractive as possible to pollinating insects.
This past week we have been blessed with a brief flourish of sunshine as summer returned and we basked in some of the hottest days of the year so far. In the South East, the heat wave broke on Thursday night with torrential thunderstorms causing travel chaos, but for a few days in the UK, we were enjoying temperatures higher than most of our favourite holiday destinations, so I am told.
These last days of the summer have helped to ripen the apples and turned my green, outdoor tomatoes a deep red as the sunlight was transformed into sugar. The warm golden glow of the sun makes everything seem more positive, as it stimulates vitamin D production and the blues of winter seem a long way off. On those rare scorching days, I start to relish the cooler and shadier areas of the garden, not as difficult places to grow, but as a refuge from the heat. They will continue to look lush and fresh whilst the sun baked areas of the garden will start to look tired and thirsty in the heat of the day.
I try to do my best to not complain about the weather, although I know it is one of the most British of pastimes. We love to tell everyone how we are too hot the moment the sun starts to shine, or bemoan the rain as soon as it starts falling, but we cannot have one without the other. Our green and pleasant land requires both sun and rain to keep it green and pleasant and if the sun shone every day, I probably wouldn’t appreciate it when it did.