This morning has brought forth the promised snow – only a dusting at present, but no less scenic for that.
Evergreen Dryopteris Erythrosara (Copper shield fern)
Suddenly the well known landscape of the garden changes to a blanketed assortment of different shapes and outlines, familiar, yet new under their pristine white icing.
So a new year begins, and I am doing what all gardeners do in January – retreat inside to dream of garden plans, and to wait for spring. “Dark mornings, short days, the precious light gone before four o’clock; January often feels the longest month of the year” writes Beth Chatto in her Garden Notebook. However, the longer I garden, the more I feel that this lull is a welcome one.
This repose is sweeter when you know you have put the garden to bed in the late autumn, new plantings and bulbs are all settled in (and very much well watered this exceptionally wet year), but enough interesting winter skeletons are left standing to add interest when the big freeze arrives.
Agapanathus seedheads with stained glass ‘lolipops’ by Hayhoe Designs
Then there is the excitement of anticipating the coming highlights and the promise of seeing work done in November come to fruition.
And this is the month when you can truly appreciate evergreens. With all the deciduous plants now naked and stark they come to the fore and provide a depth of comforting and stalwart green. Too much of this would be oppressive; especially in a garden as small as mine, but just enough and the garden has a welcome structure even in the barest month.
The last leaf on the quince tree ‘Vranja’
Last November involved a lot of new planting and re-organisation for me, which hopefully will show in the months to come. One of the most satisfying things I did was to re-distribute my six box balls throughout my back garden – instead of having them in a formal line. (I had a misguided idea that I was creating ‘a cloud’ in true Tim Stuart-Smith fashion, but it never really worked.) Now I have their neat shapes amongst my favourite perennials and bulbs in each of my beds, and I hope they will enjoy their new homes. They have certainly gained in growth and stature by moving into better spaces as my six sentinels in a loose semi-circle, like numbers on a clock face.
Box with burried bearded irises and grasses
Box needs no introduction, of course, being a wonderfully tough and resilient plant, able to thrive in drought parched sun or lush shade. Apart from the dreaded box blight (which mercifully has not reached my garden) it is undemanding and easy to look after – just one shaping trim in late June is all it needs. And once the snow or frost arrives, box shapes come into their own.
My bay tree, which I inherited, is also looking good in the snow – another great dependable of the garden, just as stylish in winter as in summer, and invaluable for culinary use.
My bamboos are also looking happy this winter. They have had a year that bamboos positively relish – virtually non-stop rain – and their foliage is therefore exceptionally glossy and healthy looking.
Phyllostachys aurea (Golden bamboo)
And then there is the next star of the show, at a time when a star is badly needed – the hellebores. At present they are just in bud, but they are on their way and that’s the important thing.
‘Christmas rose’ hellebore in bud, with viola leaves
I do not have as many hellebores as I would like, but I do have some nice ones, and the beautiful fragile flowers of the Christmas, and then Lenten, varieties are a joy at this time of the year, and right through to Easter. Along with snow drops they are the harbingers of what is to come. Their flowers are elegant, classy and understated, but once those are over their bulbous seed heads look good all year and their glossy, evergreen leaves, like large leathery hands, are a bonus foil to other spring and summer perennials. Vita Sackville West claimed that the hellebore leaf had the same iconic status as the architectural acanthus leaf for impact in the garden, and I am inclined to agree.
‘Lenten’ hellebore in bud
The virtues of hellebores are well known – totally reliable, tolerant of shade, and undemanding. If left to their own devices they will readily seed around and in time interesting cross pollinations may take place. One useful thing is to try to cut back the old leaves in December, ready for the new flowers, because the old leaves have a tendency to rot, not only chancing fungal infections, but also obscuring the emerging buds of the beautiful flowers which are best appreciated by themselves. A fresh set of leaves will be on their way for the coming year in due course.
Many years ago I bought an excellent book on hellebores (The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores by Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman.) This is now regarded as a seminal work on the genus, and has been reprinted in 2005. It is full of useful advice on cultivation and propagation, and has wonderful illustrations of the many varieties available.
The writers are memorably lavish in their praise of their beloved plants; “They are nature’s gift to gardeners in the dismal months after Christmas, when the weather is cold and discouraging and spring seems a long way ahead. At a time when few other flowers brave the elements, only the snowdrops in their prim whiteness and fascinating variety of forms can compete with hellebores. Turn the flowers up and a magical transformation takes place, revealing an almost endless variety of shading, veining and spotting.”
Not surprising then that reading this book was what inspired the career of the well known hellebore breeder Lorna Jones, whose plants I very much look forward to collecting in the future, as her selections contain some really gorgeous colours which are very desirable for any hellebore lover.
One of my new acquisitions last autumn was a Dan Pearson recommendation of a delicate looking, spring flowering shrub with an impressively long name – Coronilla valentina glauca citrina (see below).
This has turned out to be not only evergreen, which I hadn’t realised, but also a plant that carries on regardless! It has flowered since I acquired it from Crocus nurseries in November (expertly packaged, in a master class of how to send a tall plant safely through the post), and is still flowering, covered in ice and snow, and seems perfectly happy doing so. It also has a knock-out lemony scent which is terrific.
And finally, faithful old ivy is brought into prominence at this time of year, being one of only a few evergreen climbers in my garden.
Ivy ascending the wall, reaching a pottery Green Man by Helen Humphreys
So, 2012 is well and truly over – roll on 2013! I look forward to all the garden treats in store and still to arrive.