Last year when I was asked if I would take over from Jeremy in writing this column I was very reluctant to follow him. Jeremy has provided us all with such excellent gardening advice during the last eight years. However, after some deliberation, I have agreed to give it a go. So, with fear and trepidation, here goes and many thanks to Jeremy and enjoy your “retirement”. Firstly, I thought perhaps I should introduce myself. My interest in all things horticultural stems from the late 1940s when, at the age of 4 or 5, my sister and I would help our grandfather on his allotment. My grandfather was a champion vegetable grower and one of my earliest memories is spending afternoons picking off the caterpillars, of which there were hundreds, from the brassicas and gooseberry bushes. The poor creatures were then thrown into a small pit and covered with soil. My grandfather was, by and large, an advocate of organic gardening …
A lot of my horticultural knowledge stems from watching what he did and hearing his take on how to produce the best crops. At home I had my own small patch of garden and planted vegetables and flowers. In the sixth form I investigated the possibility of going on to a Horticultural College and visited a couple. However, in the early sixties horticulture was not in vogue as it is now and so I decided upon another career path. The first garden I owned, with my late husband, was a mature 1940s corner plot. The gardens all around seemed to be owned by older keen gardeners – so no pressure there then! But we were young and enthusiastic and did our best to keep up the high standard. Seven years later we moved to a brand new house and had to set about designing a garden from scratch. During this time we also took on an allotment and grew many of our own vegetables. Most afternoons, accompanied by our two young children I would take a picnic and dig and plant and harvest and encourage them to do the same. Little wonder, I guess, that my son was a keen horticulturalist from a very early age and pursued this as a career. We moved to Biddenham in 1982. My garden is small, however, I have a conservatory and an unheated plant house which I keep well ventilated, even throughout the winter, as this provides ideal conditions for the auriculas which I love. The garden has a pond, built by my son when he was thirteen and a huge Chusan Palm which he grew from a seed when he was eight or nine and then planted out – far too close to the house. Like most gardens it has lots of happy memories. So that is me and I hope that over the months you will enjoy reading my column …So on to the actual “what should we doing this month?” Having re read Jeremy’s article for January I think we could probably all do with a rest. But gardening isn’t like that is it – there is always something to be done. Gardening is like life – in two parts a) enjoying the here and now and b) planning ahead. As I write this who knows what February has in store for us. Our gardens may be covered with a thick blanket of snow or the weather may be sunny and mild. If it is snowy or wet better to keep off the garden altogether and reflect on what we want from our gardens. So February – the month of the returning sun, when February 2nd marks a tipping point and the pace of the returning sun accelerates rapidly leading up to the Spring Equinox. Now is the time to plan ahead to look at the bare bones of the garden – to reflect on its structure. Frost on trees and shrubs and the grasses and herbaceous perennials that we may have left uncut provide a lovely backdrop at this time of the year. I am a great believer in taking photographs of the garden and now is a good time. It will help us to review any gaps or plants in the wrong place. When I retired 16 years ago I started a Gardening Diary – just noting every so often what I had done in the garden – failures as well as successes and also commenting on the weather – which now makes quite interesting reading. In February 2007 we had thick snow and in February 2008 it was brilliantly sunny and warm.
As I look out into my garden the Cornus Sanguinea (the common dogwood) are shining beacons of colour. Midwinter Fire is a good variety aptly named as it looks like flames. During the latter part of this month prune hard – coppicing to 5-7cm from the base, cutting just above a bud. Mulch with compost after pruning to encourage the new growth which will provide the colour next winter. If planting a young plant do not prune too hard in the first year or two. Place them in a location where they will catch the late winter sun and, if you can, with a few evergreens as a backdrop then the colour will really sing out. To see them in their full glory do visit the winter walk at The Cambridge Botanic Garden or Anglesey Abbey. Here you can also find snow drops a plenty. However, my favourite place to see snowdrops is Chippenham Park, near Newmarket, but do check their website as they are only open on selected dates. Closer to home, of course, the snowdrops in St James’ Churchyard are always lovely. When we moved to Biddenham we had no snowdrops in our garden and it is now carpeted with thousands. Now is the ideal time to plant them, in the green, i.e when they have finished flowering but their leaves are intact. The gardening sections of newspapers are filled with advertisements for snowdrops and I usually buy mine from a supplier in Lincolnshire. Plant a hundred or so, if possible – it’s cheaper to buy them in bulk and after the first year they will spread and self seed and be so uplifting on dark winter days.
February is also a key time for pruning Wisterias. At this time of the year prune back to 2 or 3 buds from the main stem and layer the stems horizontally. Most of the clematis in my garden are the Viticella variety which means that they flower in late summer. At this time of the year they are a tangle of dried growth from the previous year but the new growth will be starting to show. Now is the time to cut back the old dead growth to 30cm or so above ground. It is also not too late to plant sweet peas, if you didn’t do so in October. They need a good long root run so planting them in root trainers or toilet roll tubes will provide this. I usually soak the seeds in tepid water for 24 hours prior to planting as their seed cases are quite hard and I find this helps with germination. Other than that chit your seed potatoes in egg boxes in a cool, light, frost free place and warm up the soil for sowing vegetables by covering the ground with a cloche or polythene. But most of all enjoy leafing through the seed catalogues with a mug or glass of something and reflect on how wonderful our gardens will look later on in the year.