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.
My tame tree surgeon delivered a heap of fresh oak chippings a couple of days ago. His tipper truck couldn’t access our drive so it was dumped on the pavement. It had to be moved, but with no one available to help, it was down to me. There was nothing for it – I took the radio out, tuned into Radio 4s afternoon play and surprised myself by moving the entire load in just over an hour. Since then we have spread about half the load on the paths and in front of the compost heaps and bagged the rest up to compost for several weeks before it’s spread under shrubs and trees in the woodland part of the garden. It used to be much easier when I was able to buy ready-composted bark (my supplier no longer delivers here) but even though it’s a bit of a palaver, it’s free and the garden loves it. Next year I will arrange an earlier delivery though, so that I can get it spread before the bulbs start poking through. Tree surgeons are generally more than happy to find someone to take the chippings off their hands, so if you have a woodland garden and space to stack the load while it composts down it is worth considering. Just check that the chippings are from a disease-free tree.
When I read that Blackpool Zoo is creating a sustainable wildlife garden that will be fertilised by elephant poo, it reminded me of a story my mother used to tell me about my grandfather. As a child, if the circus came to town, she and my uncle would be sent out to follow the elephants with a bucket and spade to pick up any droppings. Grandpa was convinced that it was the very best of all manures for the garden and would reward their efforts with tickets to the circus. It will be interesting to see how the zoos plants respond to the manure – with the three elephants pooing up to 18 times a day there will be no shortage in home produced organic fertiliser. Blackpool Zoo’s garden is being created as an educational project for the zoo’s visitors.
The fractured knee is healing well and as I get more mobile I’m gradually getting to grips with the borders that have been mouldering over the past 3 months or so. I know the theory is that we should leave everything until spring, but as I’ve been unable to do a gradual tidy I’ve needed to be fairly ruthless in order to sort out the chaos and find spaces to plant the bulbs. As I’ve worked my way along the beds, I’ve edited, divided, planted, top-dressed with and compost to help those roots keep growing overwinter and then tucked them all up in a lovely snuggly bed of Strulch my mulch of choice.
The garden may not be quite is usual beautiful self with all the wet weather, but the compost and leafmould a looking pretty good. The compost loves the warm humid weather and is decomposing superfast and giving off a lot of heat. Meanwhile, we consolidated the leafmould heap and there’s some wonderful rich black humus waiting to be used.