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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I need late autumn interest in the garden — dahlias need not apply

September14

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Novemberish gales are blowing the September garden sideways and making me think prematurely about mulching, clearing and cozying in. The open wire grille I put down to keep leaves out of the pond has stopped airborne bits of recycling from pummeling the tiny puddle of water and its newts. I’d never managed to cover the pond before this year. Maybe last winter’s swift, shocking start in November is what has me bracing for the end of the gardening year, and a bit too soon. The apples and pears are bearing, most leaves are stuck fast to branches and the late asters haven’t even shown yet.

Do you do dahlias? I’ve never grown one I liked — they are martyrs to earwigs, which means I’m not tempted even by the lighter, arier single types. The more traditional dahlias, great blobs of colour, are repellent to me. The autumn roses I grow are fat and colourful, too, but all are balanced with large areas of their own green foliage. The dahlias are unrestrained, unremitting splotches of red, pink and purple blowing a technicolor raspberry from the border — you can keep them.
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An autumn combination I prefer is growing now in the hall border, which I see foreshortened from my office window, so far-apart plants appear side-by-side. It includes:

  • heuchera palace purple
  • aster frikartii Monch
  • liatris spicata
  • schizostylis coccinea major
  • Lobelia fan blue
  • Rose de Rescht
  • Rose Zephyrine Drouhin
  • Rudbeckia Goldsturm
  • Lonicera (honeysuckle) berries
  • alchemilla conjuncta
  • persicaria

I’ve tried so hard to get autumn colour here, especially late autumn colour, for my daughter’s birthday at the end of October. That means I really need November colour, and that’s hard.
Click for larger imageMaybe this is the real reason I’m looking ahead to November: I’m keen to know if this year’s show will be any better, now that the persicaria and chrysanthemums will add to the later asters (Alma Potschke) and Schizostylis. Claire last year suggested some of the hardy fuchsias as good performers into November, and I’m propagating some from cuttings now.

Sorry if it’s tedious for you, but I keep coming back to this question of November interest (see here and here) because I can’t get it right. My two children are November and February birthdays, and a garden show at those times of year is Advanced Gardening. I have this vision of a blanket of snowdrops beneath black-ball Rudbeckia seed heads from the previous autumn. Do you think this will work? It would be some achievement to have a good autumn-into-winter show that celebrates both kids. But much of the garden gets too little sun for the Rudbeckias, and even those that thrive would need to withstand Scottish wind, snow and thaw.

I’m not sure if this black and white plan will work (I’m trying to propagate the Rudbeckia just in case), or if my kids will even know what I was trying to do for them.

Although plantings that are “for” others aren’t really what we gardeners do, is it? The planting is for us, to echo our feelings or memories of those who mean so much, we need them in the garden with us.

Who have you planted for? What did you plant?

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It’s beginning to look a lot like gardening

December16

It was pretty awful to end Click for larger imagethe gardening year with a blizzard on 26 November. Last year it snowed for a month starting just before Christmas Eve, and I thought that was bad. We’ve now had 2 feet of snow in two weeks, with a low of -14 Celsius.

When I was little I loved snow so much I prayed for it, but I have a hard time liking it now. That’s despite having seen how well it protects my plants. I didn’t lose much in the garden this summer, and yesterday I was able to dig out helleborus foetidus from melting snow. It looked like it had just lain its head down for a rest, and it stood up again.

This proof of life was interesting, but it didn’t change the numbness I’ve felt toward the garden since the blizzard. It’s the kind of ennui that defines ennui: defeated, empty, apathetic. Usually on a tea break or before falling asleep I wrap myself in thoughts about the garden: plans for new roses, spring planting combinations, schemes to get height into the border. But these last two weeks, the thoughts won’t come. It’s as if the garden had been compulsorily purchased and a high fence erected between me and it.

But today I did Click for larger imagefive minutes of what could pass for gardening. All I did was push pea sticks into a bowl of hyacinths I’ve been forcing. I got the most fleeting taste of that mad joy – nurturing a plant that needs something, studying its miraculous form, anticipating bloom-time.

Okay, it was barely gardening, but it was enough to dig me out of the snow and help me stand up again.

I’ve written a sonnet about the snow. Want to hear it?

Snow angel

The flakes are smudges on the whiter sky,
its blankness scribbled over left to right
by airy, aimless polka dots of snow;
Its business is silent smothering
of branches, berries, buds that don’t protest,
although I do; the plants have left their things
along the border by the garden wall
and snow is gaily claiming everything,
dizzy and oblivious, like one who
forgets the morning by the afternoon;
The garden’s gone, why do I seek it here?
perhaps the snow knows what it has to do:
protect what has withdrawn into the earth
and mark the place to watch for white rebirth.

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In bulbs we trust

September6

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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.

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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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The unbearable sweetness of hyacinths

February1

Click for larger imageI’ve spent the last few days experimenting with the right place for these forced hyacinths, which went into pots last autumn. On the desk was too much. In the windowsill was too much. At the opposite end of the house near the back door is just about right. It’s not just that the scent is inescapable — it’s the fierce sweetness of it, like being force-fed a pint of syrup.

Topping my list for what I want from the garden is fragrance, so it’s odd that some of the most common flower scents repulse me. This summer I’ll be cutting every sweet pea in the garden again and handing them over the wall to my neighbour Hilary, for much the same reason — a choking sweetness that I cannot love. I don’t know many other people with a cottagey garden who will admit to hating the scent of sweet peas: if you’re one of them, do me a favour and speak up.

My top ten thrilling flower scents — and I don’t grow all of these — have to be daphne, rhododendron luteum, phlox, nicotiana, zalutiniskaya, lilies, pinks, monarda, lavender (English, not the resinous French), and above all, roses.

I shouldn’t throw roses into that mix because their scent, for me, is less a preference and more a requirement for healthy mental functioning. The roseless months of the year are dark ones, and I remember standing at the rose border by the top of the lovely Inveresk Lodge Garden last June, looking at a rugosa rose, the first on the bush, just opening. Do you ever have moments that become a lasting, living image? Before leaning into it I stopped and thought, right, here’s what I’ve been waiting these months for. The scent was — well, you know what it was. Perfection.

These hyacinths are becoming more tolerable now — my brain is beginning to ignore the shouting scent picked up by my nose — and they do point the way out of this Scottish winter towards spring, so they can stay. At a distance.

What are your thrilling garden scents? Are there flowers you can’t take, or feel you “should” like, but don’t?

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