SWG003 Mid February in a Scottish cottage garden

February21

Phlox stolonifera Blue Ridge large

Welcome to the latest Stopwatch Gardener podcast, where I take a mid-February walk around the garden. In this episode I’m looking at a creeping phlox, dreaming of meconopsis, and announcing my 2014 Rare Plants for Rare Disease Research fundraiser for neuroacanthocytosis patients. There’s a link to subscribe to this audio podcast at the bottom of this blog, or you can sign up in the margin here to get an e-mail alert whenever I publish a new episode.

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SWG002 Early February in a Scottish cottage garden

February6

Galanthus Nivalis flore pleno

Welcome to the latest Stopwatch Gardener podcast, where I take a sunny February walk around the garden. If you use iTunes, there’s a link to subscribe at the bottom of this blog, or you can sign up in the margin here to get an e-mail alert whenever I publish a new episode.

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Snowdrop time at Cambo Estate

February3

Galanthus Millennium, Cambo Estate snowdrop

This is Galanthus milennium, a snowdrop I saw yesterday morning at Cambo Estate in Fife, about 2 hours’ drive from where I live outside Edinburgh. There was still frost on the grass and the ground was hard when we arrived just after 10 AM, but there were no clouds and these snowdrops were catching the light from the pure blue sky as we passed the side of the house.

The kids were delighted to discover a trampoline ready for bouncing, just near the house. Dad was supervising, more or less, which meant I was free to explore the back of the house, its lawn, sheltered seating area and a gorgeous nook by the corner of the house: its tiny table gave a good view down the lawn, through the witch hazels, and I could hear the plash the fountain out front of the building from where I sat.

” Where’s Mummy?” I could hear the kids say – “Hiding,” I thought to myself, and it wasn’t long before they discovered my seating place. But miraculously, thanks to Dad, I was able to explore the rest of the place including the stunning walled garden, in more or less solitude for the next hour or so.

My fixation is roses, as you may know, so well-pruned pergolas in the depths of winter hold tremendous interest for me. They’re pruned beautifully at Cambo Estate.

pruned roses pergola in winter at Cambo estate

The sleeping garden also convinced me I need to do more with grasses, most probably stipa tenuissima.

We didn’t come at peak snowdrop time – that’s in about 2 to 3 weeks, but it was still a delightful visit, and I decided to get a membership so I could come back to the tulip festival and ideally the roses from July.

Attempting to buy a membership to the garden was the only hiccup. I had noticed that a single membership is usually 15 pounds, and a sign in the coffee shop said it was available now for 5 pounds off. When I inquired about this in the plant shop, I was greeted with a blank stare from the humourless attendant, who then marched me in silence back to the coffee shop to verify what I had said. Never mind. My memories of the garden will not be wrapped up in that, but in the pleasure of the space, the plants and the rather good cake.


I’m looking for recommendations for New York Gardens to visit in April – can you help?

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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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In bulbs we trust

September6

Click for larger image

It’s not happened yet, but I can feel that the bulb lust will soon be upon me. I work my tiny garden intensively and only manage to get four season colour into the border by packing in bulbs among herbaceous perennials. It’s probably inconceivable for me to stuff any more tulips into the hall border near my office window, but for May through August interest, I’m planning for more alliums, more lilies and possibly my first camassias next year. I saw @lialeendertz ‘s piece in the Guardian about alliums and it underscores the most useful thing you’ll ever want to know about ornamental onions: if you don’t hide their tattered leaves with something, you’ll be sorry. I’ve just tucked mine in among astrantia, nepeta and delphiniums and I’m hoping for the best.

So yes, I’m renewing my commitment to summer flowering bulbs to squeeze maximum colour from my small space, but it’s the late winter and early spring flowering snowdrops, crocus, chionodoxa, narcissus and most of all tulips that cast the real spell over me — and my budget — every autumn.

Do you remember how the Catholic church got into a good bit of trouble some centuries ago for selling indulgences, advance absolution for future sins? Hell was big back then, and folks terrified of dying with unconfessed sins on their conscience paid big sums for indulgences, hoping to guarantee life after death by ensuring they’d die “clean”…or so the reasoning went. Spring flowering bulbs are a bit like indulgences: against reason, gardeners faced with the dying of the light invest too much every autumn, trying to guarantee life for their borders on the far side of winter’s chasm. For me, planting spring bulbs — especially those chestnut brown tulips, fat and perfect — is like casting a rope to the other side of January, where my friendly bulb vendor secures it and talks me across with comforting words about “brave crocus” and tulips “like a Dutch still life”. I can resist the crocus (they may be brave, but they get battered by day two), but the tulips will always have a hold on me.

Actually, my bulb vendor is very friendly; Anne and Jack Barnard at Rose Cottage Plants have never sent me tulips that failed to dazzle or, God forbid, were wrongly labeled, an experience I’ve had many times with other mail-order companies. The blackcurrant tinted late purple parrot “Muriel” they recommended last year was indeed stunning, and this year they’ve sourced “Happy Generation” for me, one of the many I saw in my Keukenhof tour this past April, but not usually available from Rose Cottage Plants, as Anne says her customers often avoid bi-coloured tulips. I’ve ordered 30; who knows where I’ll put them, but maybe in pots at the gate.

Click for larger image

If you’re trying to decide what tulips are worth buying, definitely ask your vendor, or see these two video tours of the Keukenhof tulip tents I made earlier this year. My voiceover rambles a bit, but you will get a sense of how many beautiful tulip varieties look, rather than relying on the hyperbolic catalog descriptions. You can also see still shots of the tulips and other parts of Keukenhof in my Flickr set.

I have scattered galanthus nivalis, a February flowering double snowdrop, among my hall border and would love to plant a short, black centred perennial like Rudbeckia, whose black eyes might hold on through the snowy months to give me a black-and-white effect in late winter. Any ideas? Rudbeckia “Goldsturm” looks good but seems a bit too tall.

Do you have a bulb addiction? Which tulips mean the most to you, and can you get away without lifting them annually?

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