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In the deep mid-winter – December 2018

December 20, 2018
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What do you think of it so far? Rubbish! Well, apart from Brexit, the winter so far has in fact been unexceptionable. In the run-up to the solstice (only two days away now, hurrah!) we have had the usual mix of rain, more rain, wind (lots of it), quite a few frosts, very little light, in fact the usual dreich early winter.

The predictable cold snap around December 15th came and went without the predicted frozen rain (here) and with almost no snow. However, it has been cold enough to delay most of the potential mid-winter flowers; for instance we have no snowdrops yet, not even ‘Three Ships’, although quite a few are now through the ground. After a fine show last year, our garrya has gone on total strike, with nary a catkin. Curiously for a Californian, it seemed to dislike the hot spell last summer. After weeks of gloom, we have enjoyed the odd fine day this week, including today. However, as I write at 3.15 pm, the sun dipped behind the houses more than an hour ago and evening is well advanced.

There are compensations at this time of year. The garden has lost its flummery and is reduced to its basics, its common denominators. The impact of a single well-placed plant is magnified, as in this shot across our ‘hay meadow’ (long since mown back) to the wonderful Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Aurea Nana’ (now reaching its half century in its third garden) on a frosty morning.

In the deep mid-winter....

This is not on the whole a garden with a great deal of complex infrastructure, artefacts, statuary and the like. In general we like to let the plants do the talking. This is perhaps least true of the area at the base of the terrace where a few (very) small ponds in plastic moulds have been sunk between paves and set about with boulders and pebbles, with a backdrop of limestone rocks (in miniature of course). This area becomes a mess as the autumn progresses; the sedges, irises, hesperantha and dieramas die back, become scruffy and gather blown leaves. Around the start of this month I cut everything hard back, gather the leaves, don ‘marigolds’ and scoop out debris from the ponds, weed, and everything looks much neater and ready for spring.

The photograph above features several plants which, being evergreen, make a winter statement. The large Bergenia cordifolia on the left are rather sombre (they make a great feature in flower), but their smaller cousin Bergenia purpurascens justifies its space in winter.

Bergenia purpurascens

Just left of centre in the same picture is a cheerful splash of bright green which results from my favourite winter fern, Polypodium cambricum. This diploid (ancestral) member of the polypodies is limited to the warmer edges of the Celtic Sea in the British Isles. Many botanists find our three polypody ferns hard to distinguish, not realising that the growth cycle of P. cambricum is quite different from the others. It is largely summer-dormant, coming into growth in the early autumn and fruiting in mid-winter. Despite this, and its apparent need for winter warmth, it is very hardy here, tucked on the north side of a limestone boulder, just as it would be in the wild.

Alongside is one of our many plants of the harts-tongue, Asplenium scolopendrium. We didn’t introduce this; it came on its own by wind-borne spores, finding our humid garden with its many shaded rocks very much to its taste. Indeed it is something of a weed and I have to winkle out many sporelings from the interstices into which they have secreted their stocks. Unlike the polypody, the fronds do tend to become damaged after the winter (I think wind is as much of a culprit as frost) and it can be unsightly, but  in a protected spot is a handsome sight in winter.

Polypodium cambricum

I’ll come back to winter foliage subjects in a minute. In the meantime I want to introduce a few thoughts on fishbox troughs. First, returning to the theme of the basics of the frosted winter garden, here is a view of the 40 metre raised terrace bed, with one of the D beds (of which more also anon) to the left and, below the terrace to the far right, the trough yard. In the foreground is Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’, also about half-a-century old.

And here is part of the ‘trough yard’, AKA the patio, although as this now has some 45 containers on it, not much patio is left. Also, there aren’t many troughs as such either. The majority are fish-boxes or other expanded polypropylene containers, often adapted from packaging (good recycling!).

Concerning fishbox containers, I wanted to make the following points. Although they are remarkably robust and survive for a long time (I have had some of mine for at least 20 years now, ever since Ian and Maggie Young introduced the concept of the fishbox trough), they do suffer some damage, most notably to edges and corners. I have yet to work out how these bits become nibbled away (for all I know our molluscan friends are to blame, or even mice, or blackbirds), but the result is that the eroded surface gleams a contrasting glary white against a background of sand-coloured paint and sand. The answer is, of course, to repaint these bits and I have just done this. The repainted bits still look pale, but will darken as they dry, oxidise, and gather atmospheric grime.

One of my largest fishbox troughs split in half last year. This is the first time that any of the polypropylene containers have actually broken. I think the problem was that I attempted to shift it when full, and it slipped off a supporting brick and the unsupported weight caused it to break its back. I was loath to abandon it as it has several very well-established inhabitants which would deeply resent any upheaval, notably a Telesonix jamesii. In the end, I wired it together, pulling the wire tight and the broken fishbox ends together by twisting a stick in the wire loop at one end. This remedy had proved moderately successful and if this ‘trough’ is excessively well-drained, the inhabitants don’t seem to mind. The following picture illustrates both this fix and the result of the paint touch-up. The dark green saxifrage is S. juniperifolia.

Amongst the earliest beds to be prepared and planted in the garden are two island beds that we term the ‘D’ beds as they are the shape of a capital D. The straight edge is bounded by sleepers (railroad ‘ties’) downhill, so that they are raised above the lawn to help to level the surface against a downhill slope, and the remainder is cut to a semi-circle. One of these was planted with relatively large Ericaceae (three pieris, including a now huge P. forrestii ‘Firecrest’, rhododendrons such as ‘Carmen’ and ‘Christmas Cheer’, several sorbus including ‘Joseph Rock’ etc.) and has now become a thicket (a very lovely one in season I should add). The curved edge is planted with a growing collection of snowdrops, to be followed by roscoeas etc. I like the way that the pieris set their buds in the autumn, promising a show well in advance.

I said I would revert to the subject of winter foliage subjects. Of course, you can’t beat the monocarpic meconopsis with their (rather vulnerable) winter rosettes. Many of the more susceptible ones are now under cloches, but this large M. paniculata (raised from seed last summer) has remained in good condition so far.

Meconopsis paniculata

The next photo, of a Meconopsis monocarpic unnamed hybrid, also raised last summer, illustrates two ongoing problems here. One is leaf fall. I have to be really careful that all the winter rosettes are kept free of rotting leaves, which they really resent. Blackbirds are a real menace as they pile up leaves on the rosettes long after they have fallen as they search for grubs amongst the leaves. The second problem is Arum maculatum. This is a serious weed here as I often let it fruit and get far too many seedlings which are very difficult to remove. You can see some here.

Cornus canadensis has proved to be another winter foliage success. It turned a good scarlet earlier in the autumn and I had expected it to disappear, but it remains in good condition in mid December.

Cornus canadensis

However, the king of them all in my view is that beautiful and dependable Celmisia ‘Eggleston Silver’, such a good doer which thrives here in any garden soil.

Celmisia 'Eggleston Silver'

I received a wonderful gift the other day, a boxful of shortias. They are said to thrive planted on Swedish peat blocks but mine have long since disintegrated. Looking for a suitable site for those I have planted outside, I chose rotten timber, into which I have inserted the seedlings using a trowel. So far they look very content. We shall see! Luckily there are plenty of spares.

Finally, the Desfontainia spinosa has continued in good flower right up to the present, almost the only flowers in the garden as I write! It’s very Christmassy!

Desfontainea spinosa

So I was able to use a little desfontainia in the wreath for the front door; all our own material!

Happy Christmas everyone!

Image of John Richards John Richards

John Richards has lived in south Northumberland for 50 years and has been a keen grower of alpines, and visitor to the mountains, throughout the half-century. He and his wife Sheila have been in their present garden 30 years and John has been writing this diary about the garden since 2006.

John is Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle, where his research interests centre on the evolution and genetics of plant breeding systems. He is an authority on the genera Primula and Taraxacum (dandelions!). John is an AGS judge, exhibitor and Vice-President and previous President (2003-6).