The Stopwatch Gardener

A gardening blog from Sheila M. Averbuch

Into the darkness with the winter garden


The crispness of winter outlines in the garden and the dramatic sideways sunlight can make December a cheerful time outside, but the weeks of afternoon darkness ahead are never a happy prospect.Click for larger image

In the same way a child clutches a blanket at bedtime, I’m holding onto one or two comfort items as we head into the winter darkness. A terra-cotta pot with snowdrops, topped with some moss scraped off the ground, will sit by my back door to light up my comings and goings. I’ve already placed a chair where it will catch noontime sun this month and next month, and from there I’ll also see the snowdrops. The daphne that’s also nearby will smell powerful and sweet – if a little bit like my Nana’s bathroom – early in the year.

Clipped evergreen for structure
This is the first year I’ve bothered to clip a red-berried cotoneaster (I think it’s a cotoneaster) in the garden here: it was in August that I took out the shears and made it into a tallish rectangular block near the back door. It has red-stemmed cornus to the right of it and an ivy-covered tree stump to its left; along with the fan trained plum behind it and a few helleborus foetidus at its feet, this solid shrub is already making a good focus for the eye in the increasingly naked garden.Click for larger image

The picture here shows the scene two weeks ago – sorry about the plastic pot, but the rest of it is nice to look at.

A big bulb show for February – iris and early tulips
I’ve done a massive re-dig and replanting on the main part of the border in order to give good planting depth to about 50 tulips and 100 iris reticulata. The whole space is only 15′ x 6′, but I’ve rethought it in a way I think will work for the winter garden and the rest of the year. A short graveled path bisects the border from front to back now, terminating in a chimney pot that sits at the base of the ivy-covered wall at the back of the border. Looking at this border with new eyes, I realized that the ivy and wall are great features: a number of different types of hedera cling to the wall, planted by the previous owner. The new path not only echoes the one at the back of the garden, near where I buried my beautiful little dog, but it also gives access for the first time right to the back of this border, for tying in, weeding, and cutting flowers.

Either side of the graveled path I’ve put lychnis coronaria, with the hundred iris reticulata, for a bluish-grayish February show. Some very early Shakespeare tulips and heavenly lily-scented mahonia japonica are also in the border now, and I’ve incorporated a load of manure and compost to help me get better performance from the roses there. I saw how well the plants grew on top of the place where I buried Lizzy, and I’m sure part of it was the great easy run the roots had because the soil was so well-dug.

Renewed commitment to digging the garden
I’ve read loads about the no-dig method for gardening, especially vegetable gardening, but I think my soil wasn’t in the right condition to go down that route. I’m loosening everything up now and I think the results will be better.

Get inspiration from Rosemary Verey
For some more good ideas read the late Rosemary Verey, “The Garden in Winter,” which has been by my bedside for the last few months. She gives practical advice about how certain winter-performing plants behave in the garden, and her ideas about structure have influenced most of what I’ve done with my garden this year.

What are you doing in your garden now? Have you given thought to how it looks during winter, or do you prefer to shut the door on it till March?

5 Comments to

“Into the darkness with the winter garden”

  1. On December 7th, 2011 at 9:20 am Sheila Sim Says:

    My garden looks truly dreadful at the moment. In the last few months I seem to have had very little spare time to spend in it, with the result that the last of summer’s weeds haven’t even been pulled out yet. Worse, I’ve had no time to plant my spring bulbs. I know from last year’s experience that I can plant tulip bulbs in January and still have a good display (which was a real revelation), but I fear I’m too late to plant narcissus – which won’t please my husband, who loves a cheery display of daffodils in the spring. Sorry darling!

  2. On December 9th, 2011 at 11:41 pm Nitty Gritty Dirt Man Says:

    I’m not doing much in the garden — other than raking, raking, and, did I mention raking? I’m looking forward to the photos of your tulip and iris border!

  3. On December 13th, 2011 at 2:28 pm Kath Wright Says:

    The no-dig method for gardening sounds great, but I don’t actually know anyone who it worked for!

    Also, thanks for the reminder about bulbs. I always forget to prepare for ~January-April, and my garden ALWAYS suffers for it. Best get planting!

  4. On December 23rd, 2011 at 6:20 pm Christine Says:

    Dear Sheila, I just wanted to wish you and your family a very joyous and also restful Christmas. Christine

  5. On January 1st, 2012 at 9:32 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Christine, thank you for the lovely comment and I’m sorry it took me a while to get back to you, I’ve been drowning In Christmas things. I hope you have a wonderful new year yourself! Any garden resolutions yet?

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