Into the darkness with the winter garden

December1

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?

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Garden design for the clueless

November8

Click for larger imageI’m not much more than an absolute beginner in gardening terms, and something I’ve hardly tackled yet is designing with plants — that business of attaining visual cohesion in different areas of the garden (and, hopefully, in the garden as a whole), with pleasing associations of colour and form. Just getting to know how plants work, and persuading them not to die, took so much time at first. In our old garden in Dublin, I planted an entire bag of daffodils upside down, and when we came to Scotland, I remember feeling annoyed when windowboxes I’d filled with red pelargoniums shriveled. (I had not watered them. At all.)

That was the year I resolved to stop growing flowers and start growing roots. I would prioritise the underground happiness of the plants, but I’d also start planning the garden around who I am, ie a neglector of containers. Except in winter, when a small pot of snowdrops sits by the back door to cheer us up, my only containers are huge ones which need just a little from me, and not very often.

Designing with plants has come so slowly, which is a major frustration, because all I’ve ever wanted from gardening is a live version of my first job at a florist’s: choosing the prettiest cut flowers and arranging them in bunches. I understand that developing a garden which looks abundant in every season can take a lifetime, but I’d like some abundance now — as well as visual cohesion. I visit gardens when I can, but mostly I’m gleaning design insights from books. Here are the top three most helpful design principles I’ve internalised:

  • Control the use of colour: flowers of similar colour tones planted together are restful and harmonious to the eye — like the restrained palatte in the picture above, showing our small main border. I no longer buy “mixed” colour tulips, pansies, seeds or anything else. A single contrasting pair of colours, like blue and orange, is also pleasing and looks lively to the eye as opposed to restful.
  • Foreshortened views suggest abundance: you don’t have to wait until your borders are overflowing like a botanic garden to get a feeling of abundance. Position garden seats (or your plants, if you’re starting from scratch) so that you have a foreshortened view down along the border, instead of across it. That way, to your eye, plants not located near each other will seem to come together, giving the impression of an overflowing garden, and bringing colours right up next to each other.
  • Hide parts of the garden from view: paradoxically, even a tiny garden feels bigger if you find ways to hide part of it from immediate view. The hedge or fence with a gap in it, a plant placed to partially obscure a view, a path that winds away from the eye so you can’t see its full length, or even a false door in a boundary wall that leads nowhere — all these suggest an undefined “something more”. Subconsciously your brain speculates and projects about what it could be, and the garden ends up feeling bigger.

Too many design books offer blueprints and drawings instead of what I really want: inspiring garden photography where the plants are all identified, and clear, contextual explanations of design principles. At the moment I’m in love with the practical and beautiful Fabulous Flowerbeds by Gisela Keil and Jurgen Becker. If you have a design must-read book, or a design golden rule you’d recommend to me, I’d love to hear them.

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Self-seeders versus the weeds

October28

Click for larger imageOne of my biggest confusions when I started gardening was about mulching. I grasped that mulching my borders with a good thick layer of compost, especially home-brewed, would put goodness back into the soil, keep moisture in the ground and suppress weeds. My conflict was that I also loved the idea of self-seeding plants like foxgloves and nigella, whose bursting seedpods would drop their wares about the place and effortlessly (hah!) furnish me with a flower-packed garden. How could I mulch and not smother self-seeders trying to do their thing? Some might still come up, but I hated to take any chances.

The answer I eventually came to was mulching late and being selective about the seedlings I keep. I initially went overboard and let everything grow (“it could be a weed, but maybe it’s a rare orchid…”). Most of the self-seeders turned out to be hairy bittercress, creeping buttercup and poppies. It’s only time, and the fabulous Seed Site, that’s helped me recognise the good stuff. This year it’s been great to see self-seeding cerinthe — a truly beautiful, dusky blue-green annual — come up to join the other self-seeders like biennial wallflowers, nigella, nasturtiums, alchemilla mollis, verbascum, lychnis coronaria…and the superabundant aquilegia and foxgloves. I relocate or compost anything unwanted or in the wrong place, and I mulch around the keepers with compost now, when the soil is good and wet, to give the worms and the frost the whole winter to break it all up and pull it down below.

If you want to sort the weeds from the keepers, the Seed Site has an encyclopedic weeds section, with descriptions and pictures organised by flower colour. It does the same for hundreds of desirable plants and flowers, including popular favourites. Brilliant.

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