Why anyone would visit a garden in the winter is a bit of a mystery to the non-enthusiast, but for those in the know it provides the perfect opportunity to see the bones of the garden. Ok, you do need to wrap up in your warmest clothes and wear waterproof footwear, but it does allow you to see how the experts maintain, protect and prepare for the coming season. Which is why I went along to Great Dixter’s Winter Open Weekend. The snowdrops were at their peak carpeting the ground beneath the shrubs in the many borders. This confirms advice I read recently that you should plant snowdrops where you don’t garden – in other words in places where they will not be dug up or disturbed rather than in the middle of flowerbeds. Undisturbed, they will rapidly spread, just as they have at Great Dixter. It was seeing the tall, strong-growing Galanthus Atkinsii there a few winters back that inspired me to introduce it in my own garden where it is now multiplying happily. One of the advantages of growing the taller varieties is that they are less prone to getting splashed with soil or mulch when it rains heavily. S. Arnott is another tall variety – with the added bonus of a delightful scent – but for some reason it seems reluctant to multiply in my garden.
Galanthus S Arnott
Aside from the snowdrops, the other plant that drew my eye was a group of the wonderful ‘Anna’s Red’ hellebore. I viewed this with more than a little envy, having bought one at a previous winter weekend. Sadly, despite planting it in a spot where hellebores usually thrive, it never reappeared after the first year. A friend had a similar experience, so I do wonder if it needs special treatment. At £20 a go, I’m reluctant to try again, however lovely they are.
Hellebore ‘Anna’s Red’
Because it can be very cold at Great Dixter, tender plants are left well wrapped up until spring. I rather like the sere beauty of the tropical garden with its looming structures and monochromatic palette. Throughout the garden seedheads are left to provide late winter food for the birds.
A wintery tropical garden
Seedheads still provide food for the birds
Behind every good garden there’s a good compost heap, and at Dixter there are several huge heaps in varying states of decomposition. Black gold indeed.
Warm sunshine, barely a breeze and the flowers are unfurling, birds singing and bees of every shape and size are buzzing round the garden accompanied by squadrons of hoverflies. Stop Press! I’ve just seen a tortoiseshell butterfly! It’s on days like this that the slog through winter dissolves and I find myself itching to get out there and do things – lots of things. But before the hard work begins, it’s time to celebrate the early arrivals in the garden whether floral or flying.
Daphne Jacqueline Postil is as alluring to the bees as it is to us
Crocuses are in beautiful and colourful bloom
Witchhazels scent the air
Euphorbias contribute acid green bracts
snowdrops are in full bloom
Until recently the overwintering seedlings and early sown seeds have shown very little above soil activity, but as the days lengthen and (sometimes) the temperatures rise, there are definite signs of growth. It’s time to clean the grimy windows and get sowing in earnest. Now that I have some modest heat in the greenhouse everything is a lot less vulnerable to fluctuating temperatures.
January sown sweet peas
Autumn sown poppies
Autumn sown corncockle
February sown spinach
February sown dill
Our dilapidated old garage might have been pretty useless for housing our car, but its ivy-smothered exterior was popular with the birds who found many suitable nesting places. Our new weather boarded garage is very smart and is perfect for parking the car but it currently lacks foliage – so our birds need new homes. With this in mind – and with National Nest Box Week coming up from the 14th-21st February – I have bought a couple of new nestboxes. I’m still pondering where to put them – the north side of the garage would be ideal but the lack of cover may well put the birds off. Time to get planting I think, but in the meantime I will find other spots in the garden that are well out of the way of cats, sheltered from the prevailing wind and out of direct sun.
In my earlier post about Sir Paul Smith, I wrote about the role of green as the anchor that holds everything in place in a garden – so it’s unsurprising that the greenness was what I noticed as I looked at some of the drawings of this year’s Chelsea gardens. No doubt, when we get to Chelsea our eyes will seek out the excitement, and the actual gardens will be further enlivened by shape, texture and the play of light, but it is useful to see the contribution that green makes to each of the gardens and bear it in mind for the planting in our own garden.
Jo Thompson’s Sylvan Retreat will have a two storey writer’s retreat tucked amongst a glade of birches and ‘floating’ in the middle of a natural swimming pond. It looks wonderfully romantic and promises tumbling roses and blowsy paeonies – only comment is that with all those lovely distractions will the writer ever get any work done!
The Trugmaker’s Garden is an Artisan Garden that promises to be of particular interest to me. Several years ago I wrote a feature about one of the few surviving Sussex trugmakers and I spent some time with her (yes, her) in her wonderful workshop and came away appreciating the complexity of the process and the strength needed to fashion a trug. The trug I bought from her is still in regular use – they are incredibly robust and although mine is well-weathered it is a strong and functional as the day I bought it.
Prince Harry’s Sentebale Garden
This garden, designed by Matt Keightley is an interpretation of the Mamohato Children’s Centre, a sustainable, beautiful and locally-inspired centre that will support to some of Lesotho’s most vulnerable children where one child in three is an orphan and 40,000 adolescents are living with HIV. Called ‘Hope in Vulnerability’, Matt will use traditional and sustainable Lesothan building techniques and plant the garden with vibrant colour combinations.