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.
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.