a cook's garden

Going a-wassailing? Branch out.

By Barbara Damrosch
Thursday, December 23, 2010

God rest you merry gentlemen, and if the round of holiday socializing seems humbug to you this year, try going out for a jolly wassail. Not just the door-to-door caroling kind (though nothing wrong with that) but the trek out to the orchard, where you light a bonfire and wassail the trees.

"Wassail" ("waes hael" in Mid-dle English) means "be well," and in this old ritual it's a toast to the well-being of an important year-round food crop. In England's apple country, usually around Twelfth Night, apple trees were saluted with songs and rhymes urging them to bear well in spring. A great deal of noise was made to drive away evil spirits and wake up each tree, in hopes of a "howling good crop." Much spiced ale, mulled cider or eggnog posset was drunk. Pieces of toast were hung in the branches as offerings to the insect-eating robins and other birds that protected the tree.

Although wassailing was typically done at night, I can see starting a little earlier and giving your cherished apple tree some extra attention of a practical nature.

Bring forth a wheelbarrow full of well-composted manure and sprinkle it around the tree, as far out as the drip line. Not too much; you don't want to over-stimulate leafy growth at the expense of fruit.

If you have a fireplace or wood stove, scoop out some hardwood ashes and scatter them under the tree at the rate of five to 10 pounds per 100 square feet. This will add potassium and trace elements for disease resistance, while boosting the pH.

If there are still piles of autumn leaves lying about, spread them four inches deep as a mulch, then scatter a little hay over them to keep them from blowing away. This makes an excellent covering for the soil under a tree, much better than grass sod, which would compete with it for nutrients. During their decomposition, the leaves will provide a slow-release supply of nitrogen, just the way they do in a forest.

Such amendments are wholly in the spirit of wassailing, as an offering of good health, and the celebration of interdependence among man, bird and tree. Doing it as a group adds a spirit of community and good fellowship.

Now it is possible, given the changeability of this season's weather, that your compost, leaves and hay may be frozen solid by Twelfth Night. In that case, go back to plan A. Light a fire, make a loud, joyful noise, sing something and pass around a well-spiked wassail bowl from which all assembled take a hearty draught. If you are repenting of holiday sweets by then, make a bullshot the beverage of choice. The winter version is composed of hot beef bouillion, vodka, a squirt of Worcestershire and a squeeze of lemon or lime. And waes hael to you all.

localliving@washpost.com Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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