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Words of wisdom

Old sayings and proverbs are a way to connect with nature – and can offer nuggets of wisdom that have been passed down through the ages

'Ne'er cast a clout 'til May be out' is an old English proverb that most of us have heard. It's been around since the eighteenth century, and is still used today – usually by parents and grandparents to encourage youngsters to keep wrapped up in warm clothes, or 'clouts', on chilly spring mornings.

There is some disagreement as to the meaning of the proverb: some believe the word 'May' refers to the month – in other words, don't go out without a coat on until the end of May.

Others believe that 'May' refers to Hawthorn, or May blossom. This usually blooms – or is 'out' – in late April and early May, meaning you can take your coat off a bit sooner.

White hawthorn blossom and green hawthorn leaves

Also known as May tree, quickthorn or white thorn, hawthorns are common and easy to spot in hedgerows across the UK. They're fantastic trees for wildlife, offering food and shelter to more than 150 different species of insect, including bumblebees, peacock butterflies and ladybirds. And the red berries, or haws, provide an autumn feast for all sorts of birds, such as chaffinches, blackbirds and greenfinches.

With their long, sharp thorns, hawthorns are often planted as a hedge to create a secure, impenetrable barrier. Small creatures also appreciate this sense of security and will choose hawthorn hedges to hibernate or nest in. Dunnocks and robins can often be seen fluttering about, and wood mice, slow worms and toads may also set up home in a hawthorn hedge.

Red hawthorn berries and green hawthorn leaves
Green seedlings in brown pots

If bought fresh and sown correctly, seeds these days generally have pretty good germination rates.

But gardeners in the past faced more challenges. They often used seeds that had been saved from their own plants – and these seeds may have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions. Sowing generously meant a better chance for a substantial crop come harvest time.

Even with improved germination from modern seed-production methods, it makes sense to sow a little more than you need. You can always thin out later if the plants get overcrowded – or give surplus plants to gardening friends and neighbours.

'When you hear the cuckoo shout, it's time to plant your taties out!'

Potato plant

As the first cuckoo's call could be heard anytime mid-March to early May, this isn't a particularly accurate saying. But planting potatoes at any time during this period should produce a decent harvest.


Sadly though, hearing a cuckoo these days is becoming a rare occurrence. Cuckoos are a Red List species in the 2021 UK Conservation Status Report. This means they are globally threatened, with big declines in breeding populations and ranges.

Plant trees

An old Greek proverb stresses the importance of planting trees, even if we won't benefit from them ourselves: 'a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.'

Ancient tree with large roots in dappled sunlight

And 'walnuts and pears, you plant for your heirs', bears a similar message.

The Chinese proverb 'the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today' can be taken literally – but is also a metaphor that reminds us it's never too late to take positive action.

And let's end with a quote that sums up the value of tree-planting very nicely, with the words of Lucy Larcom, the 19th century American teacher, poet, and author:

'He who plants a tree plants a hope'.

Little Green Space May 2024

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Because of its timely flowering, hawthorn has long been associated with May Day celebrations. People and houses are traditionally decked with May blossoms – although it's said to be unlucky to bring the flowers inside the house – with the white flowers featuring prominently in the May Queen's crown.

Age old wisdom

Some proverbs, sayings and old wives' tales are rooted in suspicion ('If your rake falls prongs up, it will rain tomorrow)' or just wishful thinking ('Rain before seven, fine before eleven'). But many contain more than a shred of truth.

Before the age of supermarkets, the vegetable garden was often a lifeline for many households, and crop failure could mean going hungry. So kitchen gardening was taken very seriously. Careful observation of what worked and what didn't was important so that mistakes weren't repeated – and successes were.

This knowledge has been passed down through the generations, often in the form of catchy, easily remembered rhymes and sayings. Here are a couple of examples:

'Plant your seeds in a row, one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.'