A combination of the “Beast from the East” (icy blasts from Siberia) with Storm Emma caused havoc on the first day of spring. It is bitterly cold and the garden is covered in a blanket of snow, but we are lucky in Oxford as it is much worse in other parts of the country- up to 50cm (20in) of snow in some places and numerous roads are impassable. Schools are closed and our grandchildren have been out building snowmen and tobogganing. Definitely not gardening weather.
Garden under snow
Birds are feasting on the food we have put out and appreciate the water in the Giant’s causeway rock for both bathing and drinking. Fieldfares and blackbirds fight over apples on the lawn, robins tuck into mealworms, while siskins, assorted tits, a nuthatch and great spotted woodpeckers hang acrobatically from feeders with nuts, fat and seeds. Woodpigeons, chaffinches and dunnocks hoover up the debris on the ground.
Snowdrops Mighty Atom in frost and some snow
Snowdrop Mighty Atom completely flattened
The snowdrops are flattened (but will stand up when the temperature rises), early narcissi that I photographed last week are barely visible and crocuses are buried.
Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’
Camellia japonica ‘Sylvia’
Camellia japonica ‘Sylvia’ damaged by frost
Camellias come into their own at this time of year. Unfortunately many of the lovely red blooms on Camellia japonica ‘Sylvia’ are an unsightly brown. Frost-damage is a problem as the plant faces east and catches the early morning sun. I really ought to move the rather weighty tub but where to (and how)? The slightly later flowering Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’ is sheltered from the early sun, so the fat pink buds which are starting to open will soon provide a fine show. I have knocked the snow off both shrubs. The camellias belonged to my father and he cherished them with such care that I felt I had to bring them here when my parents’ house was sold. I can still envisage him watering them with the rain water he had collected, doing a little careful pruning, feeding them and happing up the tubs for the winter. These plants are almost 40 years old, but camellias are extraordinarily long-lived and may survive well over 200 years. Perhaps the children or even the grandchildren will take over their care one day.
Some of the early snowdrops are looking a little the worse for wear but many are still putting on a grand display despite (or perhaps because of) the winter chill. The clump of ‘Cowhouse Green’ (green tips to petals) has increased in size and I have invested in new snowdrops including ‘Polar Bear’, ‘Gerard Parker’, ‘Reverend Hailstone’ and, best of all, ‘South Hayes’, so the number of snowdrops has swelled to more than 60. I have been inspired by a visit to Colesbourne Park, a magnificent snowdrop garden filled with so many temptations. The little Iris reticulata are still putting on a grand display, especially a clump of pale blue ‘Sheila Ann Germany’ in the bed alongside my drive. I have also just invested in a few Polar Ice, another very pale Iris reticulata, and Pauline, a very dark blue.
Galanthus ‘Cowhouse Green’
Galanthus ‘South Hayes’
Iris reticulata ‘Sheila Ann Germany’
Crocuses have popped up all over the garden. Crocus tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’ has spread widely in the grass under the apple tree and the small group of the delicate Crocus sieberi ‘Tricolor’ has enlarged. I am also enjoying Crocus chrysanthus including ‘Cream Beauty’, ‘Herald’ and ‘Blue Pearl’. Crocus ‘Yalta’, which I planted last autumn, has come into flower. I found the silvery-blue outer petals lightening up a dull corner. However the flowers were closed so I did not see the dark purple inner petals. I must check again in the sunshine.
Crocus tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’
Crocus sieberi ‘Tricolor’
Hellebores and narcissi
Winter aconites are almost over but the Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis) are looking good although I have lost the doubles (I actually prefer the less fussy single flowers) and the clump of Helleborus × hybridus ‘Harvington Black’, a dramatic dark purple, has decreased rather than increased in size. The naturalised narcissi in the grass under the apple trees are coming into their own, a sign that spring really is just around the corner.
The choice alpines from Craigiehall Nursery lived up to expectations. They arrived in perfect condition, beautifully packed, and I had a lot of fun planting up a pot with a combination of Polygala calcarea ‘Lillet’, Salix hylematica, Veronica prostrata ‘Nana’, Saxifraga federici-augustii subsp. grisebachii , Saxifraga ‘Jaromir’, Vitaliana primuliflora ssp. praetutiana and Penstemon davidsonii menziesii ‘Microphyllus’. I have probably crammed in too many tiny plants – I may have to invest in another pot.
The garden is wintery and the pond has frozen again. The weather has not been conducive to gardening to-day as the rain lashed down most of the day.
G. Natalie Garton
G. Mighty Atom
However I have had days in the garden as things are definitely moving out there. My snowdrops are really coming into their own, hellebores are in flower, winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are just appearing, my Mum’s Iris unguicularis (stylosa) is still producing numerous flowers and I am thrilled that the Hamamelis intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ that I planted last year in the damp bed is flowering.
Helleborus multifidus ssp. bocconei
Iris unguicularis ‘Walter Butt’
Poor Garrya elliptica was given the heave-ho. I had given it due warning – if it did not perform with a good display of green tassels this year, it would be out as most of the time the dark evergreen leaves do not brighten my day and the tassels gradually start to go brown and just look sorry for themselves. So on Wednesday we removed it leaving me with space in a small North-facing bed that is now replete with fresh compost, top soil and manure. I am going to put in Daphne blagayana at the front. I will enjoy the fragrant, creamy-white terminal clusters of flowers each spring. There will still be space for another small choice shrub and I may also add the odd bulb or even an alpine.
In fact I have ordered a number of alpines from a small Scottish nursery (Craigiehall Nursery) that I found on-line when I was sitting in bed feeling sorry for myself with a streaming cold over the New Year. Nothing like plants to cheer one up. I am looking forward to their arrival.
I tackled the Michaelmas daisies after looking at the photographs I took last autumn. I have moved them around to provide a better mix of colours and I also split some of the older clumps to rejuvenate the plants. Inevitably there was the odd crunch as the fork hit some of the very large clumps of Nerine bowdenii bulbs, most of which do not flower now because the soil is really too heavy and over the years the bulbs have got covered far too deeply when the bed has been mulched. Nerine lilies do best in a well-drained site with full sun and would love to be at the base of a sunny, south-facing wall if I had one. I have replanted many of them more superficially and moved some to the bed at the base of the cottage wall (south-east facing) – we will see what happens.
Galanthus elwesii var. monostichus ‘Marjorie Brown’
Shoots of Iris reticuloides
Bulbs- snowdrops, irises and even a daffodil
Some snowdrops are in flower, including the fine tall Mrs MacNamara, and many more are nosing their way above ground, but will those I divided last year flower well or sulk? I was delighted to see the little pointed buds of the dwarf iris, Iris reticulata ‘Sheila Ann Germany’ , just showing and the clump seems to have fattened up. By January, I hope a number of these little irises will be in flower providing bright splashes of colour in the gravel garden, rock bed, drive bed and pots.
To my delight I found one trumpet daffodil flowering – Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’, an award-winning hybrid dating from the 1940s. It is certainly early. I planted a few bulbs in 2016 because it provides winter colour and even stands up to snowfalls. The others in my small clump are probably only a week or so behind and I have more than last year, so eventually I hope to have a good sized clump .
Winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, was one of the first plants my mother gave me and the shrub has been flowering since the beginning of December. I am going to cut some twigs for the house so we can enjoy the fragrance of the dainty white 2-lipped blossoms indoors as well as out. I know it would flower better if I grew it in a sunnier spot, but then I would not have the benefit of scent by the back door.
Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, is also in flower. The small scented waxy yellow blooms have almost no stem and look as if they have been stuck directly onto the bare twigs. I pruned it hard last spring and now it has flowers that I can reach. It was probably a mistake to plant it so close to the honeysuckle- I should have spread scent around the garden. The pink flower-buds of Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’are also almost open. The perfume will fill the gravel bed and reach the front door where I have another tiny Daphne, Daphne cneorum var. pygmaea, in the small alpine trough. It has highly scented flowers in May. Both my troughs now have smart new covers provided by Mr B – what wonderful Christmas presents.
The leaf mould bin which looked so full is now half full (or half empty depending on your attitude). The snow compressed the leaves so I am going to have to do some more collecting. Something to do when the weather improves.
Winter arrived with a dump of wet snow. House and garden looked very picturesque.
Snow at Upper Green
Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’ is weighed down by heavy snow
It is important to knock off the snow before the weight breaks branches as it hs in the case of this Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’.
We knocked the heavy snow off the branches of shrubs and trees and most have come through unscathed, but Buddleja davidii ‘Royal Red’ did take a hit. However buddlejas are tough, so it will be right as rain after a little judicious pruning.
Prior to the snow, I managed to persuade Mr B. that we could remove a narrow strip of lawn between two flower-beds. Chris, our very knowledgeable gardener, has made me a short path with a thick layer of bark chippings laid on a water-permeable and weed suppressing membrane. It looks great, giving a woodland feel to that part of the garden, where I already grow a number of ferns as well as the Pheasant’s tail grass, Anemanthele lessoniana. I shall mulch the adjacent beds thickly with my precious leaf mold and hope to have more success with woodland plants such as our native wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, which do not thrive on the heavy clay.
Bark chippings are laid over a membrane to create the new path
Before the path
The grass has been removed
The lovely blue flowers and fat flower buds ofmy mother’s Irisunguicularis (previously known as I.stylosa) are a welcome winter surprise, hiding amongst the long untidy leaves. I think the variety is probably ‘Walter Butt’. The flower buds are frost-resistant, but the flowers themselves are not. This iris continues to flower sporadically for several months and my mother used to take great pleasure in picking a few of the sweetly scented blossoms for the table. The iris flourishes in the most unpromising of conditions, at the base of the cottage wall where the ground is both dry and without much nutrient. Anemone pavonina in the gravel bed is also in flower and seems to have survived despite the snow and frost. These treats make a garden stroll worthwhile despite the weather.
The cold weather has arrived (goodbye slugs and snails) and I am relieved that I have wrapped up pots and protected tender plants, although I suspect the salvias are doomed.
I am the proud owner of a mini “growhouse” courtesy of Mr B. “It is essential to square the frame”. Why is it never so easy to put these things together as the instructions suggest? We managed to break 2 panes of glass (much to the amusement of our lovely neighbour working on his compost heap on the other side of the hedge) and now the cracks between the paving slabs in the patio are embellished with sparkling diamonds of safety glass. It is done and the growhouse is nestled up against the wall of the house. My small alpine pots, pelargoniums and fuschias are snuggled up inside- time will tell how effective it is for over-wintering pots, but it should be useful for germinating seeds.
Much more successfully, Mr B made me a proper stable lid my small alpine trough, so I am not reliant on an odd assortment of bricks and flowerpots to support, and string to secure, the perspex lid. I have still to persuade him to tackle the larger trough, the lid of which is far from a professional job. I am working on it.
The first snowdrops are almost over- the elwesii, Peter Gatehouse, is always out in November and may even flower in October. I only have a tiny clump, but there were 3 flowers this year. The clay bank is really not conducive to spread so perhaps I should replant the bulbs somewhere else. I have mulched all my snowdrops with leaf mold and a little bone meal, so I am hopeful there will be a good display.
Helianthus salicifolius on the left towers over everything else in the border
Helianthus salicifolius in flower
My missouri sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius) finally did its stuff- what a plant. The 11 foot stems, clothed by long hanging leaves, are now topped by a tuft of small yellow daisies that are almost out of view. It has withstood the gales and continues to tower over everything else in the border. I love it despite its ridiculous appearance but see why it is grown for architectural value rather than flowers.
Rosa ‘Buff Beauty’
The garden is tousled but full of colour. The cockspur thorn ( Crataegus crus-galli) always puts on a wonderful autumnal display, although there are few berries this year. Grasses such as Molinia litoralis are turning rich shades of orange and yellow and some roses are still in flower, including the hybrid musk ‘Buff Beauty’.
Salvia x jamensis
The salvias are still flowering. Salvia ‘Amstad’ is particularly dramatic with long spikes of purple flowers arising from very dark purple bracts- but I suspect it is also the least hardy. I might dig up the plants and try to overwinter them somewhere sheltered. I have taken cuttings from Salvia x jamensis but I think it is relatively tough. I am pleased with the overall effect. They all look much more at home in this bed alongside the drive than they did in the large herbaceous bed in the back garden.
Planning for spring
Leaves are beginning to fall and we are making leaf mold – gold dust for free! Large leaves are chopped with the lawn mower before stacking in an open-topped compost bin, where they will get plenty of rain (you can just use bin bags but make sure the leaves are wet). The fungus needs a damp environment to break down the leaves and the whole process will take one to two years so we are going to make another leaf container with posts and wire netting. My snowdrops thrive with a little of the brown crumbly mulch and it is essential for the woodland plants that struggle in our heavy clay- wood anemones, winter aconites, and dog’s tooth violets to name a few. Really I should not attempt to grow them but I do love our native spring flowers. Primroses, on the other hand, flourish here without any help from me.
The dry and sunny autumnal weather has been perfect for collecting seeds for next year. I never have the right containers (note to self- keep more old plastic food containers) but end up with an odd assortment on the windowsill. The seedpods or seeds must be completely dry before I store them, in labelled envelopes, in a water-tight container at the bottom of the fridge. Beware- some pods, as they dry, suddenly uncurl dramatically firing seeds out of the labelled container.
I still remember going into my 80-year old Auntie Margery’s dark walk-in cupboard in her sitting room. The cupboard was full to bursting point of “stuff”- old envelopes, newspapers, gardening magazines stacked up on the floor, vases and a large number of carefully labelled plastic margarine pots full of seeds for planting the following year, including beans and peas. I put my hand on the shelf and there was a snap. I emerged with a plastic mouse trap attached to my fore-finger-no mice in my fridge.
When to stop deadheading?
I have to decide when to stop dead-heading. Deadheading encourages plants to continue to flower, but some seedheads may be wonderfully decorative in their own right and I want seeds for next year. Cosmos are still flowering so I am continuing to deadhead. Nicotiana glutinosa was a success with small coppery flowers that complemented the brickwork, but the flowers are over and I have collected seeds. I have also collected seeds from plants such as allium, lunaria (honesty) and scabious. The nasturtiums are looking wonderful tickling the belly of my sheep- but no seeds yet as I planted them rather late.
Eryngium giganteum (Miss Wilmott’s ghost) did look wonderfully structural in the gravel bed, but it is a biennial and now was grey and sad dominating the small space. In a larger bed I might have left it but I have removed it (wearing protective gloves as the spines are so unfriendly), collected seeds and will keep the plant for Christmas decorations. It will look wonderful with a spray of silver paint. The oval seed pods of honesty also make great decorations if one strips off the outer cover leaving a fragile silvery oval pod. I will leave that fun activity for the grandchildren.
I suspect it is snails that cause most damage in my garden – by now the hostas have filigree leaves. In hot dry weather large numbers aestivate (rest in a state of dormancy) in the shelter of walls or under stones. I confess I crush them without compunction. I also destroy the clusters of pearl-like eggs under leaf-litter in the flower beds.
Large slugs provide a useful recycling service by eating decaying plant material. Small slugs do most damage. I protect choice plants with copper rings and the mulch of Strulch that I applied in the spring also seemed to be a useful slug deterrent. I was not impressed by the effect of fleece pellets. Gravel and egg-shells may make some difference. We encourage birds, newts, toads which keep down the population of both slugs and snails. I have not seen a hedgehog in years (eaten by the growing population of badgers?). Even ground beetles eat slugs. Biological control with nematodes would be expensive in a large area. I have slug-collected on damp evenings and cut them in half with scissors or dropped them into a strong salt solution, but in the end, on occasion, I somewhat guiltily do resort to poison starting with the organic pellets containing ferric phosphate before progressing to metaldehyde.
Have your say!
Poison in the garden -how guilty should I feel? Let me know what you do to control the pests in your garden!
The annual clearance of the pond has been completed without mishap. Once more the step-ladder was put to good use as a pond bridge. I have suggested to Mr B. that a Monet Chinese bridge would not only look attractive, but make life much easier for the poor gardener (pond-clearer). However I have to agree that the pond, more of a puddle by Monet’s standards, hardly justifies a bridge, although the grandchildren would have fun. Anyway, yet again I suspended myself precariously over the pond by lying on my stomach on said step-ladder, bony prominences on hips and knees cushioned by various kneeling mats, and clothing protected by waterproof trousers and gauntlets. A female Emperor dragonfly coursed back and forwards over my head looking for somewhere to lay, but unfortunately I had removed most of the long stems of the flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus, which in our case is most definitely non-flowering. The rush is too congested in the small pond, but removing the roots is problematic as the stems tend to snap off. I suspect it will do no better in 2018. What a job, but at least it is done and the pond does look bigger and better.
Disappearing ramshorn snails
I am puzzled by the dearth of ramshorn snails which used to be two-a-penny in the pond. Over the last two years the population seems to have dropped. They are vital scavengers, munching up blanket weed and other algae. I may have to introduce more as now the pond is clearer, blanket weed is sure to return.
Darmara has invaded clump of Bowles golden sedge
Digging out thick rhizomes of Darmara
Houttuynia turning brown after a dose of weedkiller or could it be autumn colours.
Invasive marsh plants
Thugs have engulfed the small marshy area adjacent to the pond and I have lost, or almost lost, a number of choice plants. I planted Darmera peltata, Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’ and Houttuynia cordata ‘Flore Plena’ when I made the pond with marsh, some 25 years ago – definitely a mistake. I should not have taken my eyes off them. Houttuynias have spread inexorably through the heavy clay, their fleshy underground rhizomes choking delicate plants. Darmera, which is marketed as an alternative to Gunnera manicata, “more suitable for the smaller garden”, produces dense layers of thick hard rhizomes. Plants do not flourish in the shade under the umbrella-like leaves and the solid clumps of rhizomes are impenetrable. We have made progress on extracting the unyielding Damara rhizomes, but I am afraid I have resorted to weedkiller (and crossed fingers) for the houttuynia.
Asters (symphyotrichum), sedums (hylotelephium), and japanese anemones are providing plenty of colour.
Cyclamen hederifolium are opening under shrubs and the leaves of the little Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Seiryu’ on the patio have just developed a reddish tinge. Mornings are cool, apples are ripe and autumn has arrived.