On a chilly, dismal, drab Sunday in early November when I was contemplating what to write for my December and January article I was reflecting on what I want from my garden at this time of the year. I came up with three things – structure, colour and scent. I have written about structure before in the way that grasses and other plants will give this, so my piece for the winter months will focus on colour and scent. I was reminded of the importance of colour when my daughter and I visited Cambridge Botanic Garden last week. The alpine glass house was stunning. All the plants in superb condition and at their peak flowering time – such an uplifting display. I have recently been planting small, terracotta pans with a gritty compost mix to give the ideal conditions for the miniature Iris Reticulata which I always plant at this time of the year. I am particularly fond of Iris Pauline, Harmony, George, Katharine Hodgkin and this year I have been growing Frozen Planet again as I so enjoyed its ice white and pale blue flowers. They are now safely tucked away in my plant house until I notice, one morning after Christmas, that they are showing their spiky shoots – what joy they bring in the dark winter months.
So back to colours and scent. My memory of Anglesey Abbey in January is the overwhelming smell of the Sarcococca or Christmas Box. Purple tinged stems with long, lean leaves interspersed with small fluffy white flowers and such a superb scent. Every garden should have some for winter pleasure. One of my favourite shrubs in my own garden is Hamamelis or Witch Hazel which flowers between December and February. The citrus scented spidery flowers are carried on bare leafless branches. I have “Pallida” which I think is one of the best yellows – it stands out so well on dull days. Hamamelis Jelena is a coppery orange and Hamamelis Diane is a rich red. They are relatively slow growing and can be planted in containers. They like a reasonably rich soil and do well in sun or light shade. Another good yellow flowering shrub is Mahonia. Very upright and architectural with long, bright yellow shuttlecock flowers at the tips of its stems – set off against leathery holly-like stems and very fragrant. Many years ago we planted Viburnum Bodnantense “Dawn” this flowers from late Autumn until early Spring – its bare branches are decorated with tiny bunches of rosy pink budded flowers that fade to a paler pink – you can also cut a few sprigs for the house. Cotoneaster, Skimmia and Pyracanthus provide lovely berries which, of course, the birds love.
My two favourite trees in the winter months are Prunus Serrula, the Tibetan Cherry. Its main feature is the smooth, shiny bark – the colour of a polished conker and so tactile. But for pure joy in the winter months I don’t think you can beat the Himalayan Birch, Betula Utilis Jacquemontii with its stunning crisp white bark. I have two in my garden – I wish I had three but there wasn’t room. My son suggested the variety Silver Shadow and it was a wise choice. Once a year their trunks can be hosed down and cleaned with a soft brush to keep them looking fresh. You will have seen them at Anglesey Abbey I am sure and the trees there always have an annual wash.
Under shrubs and trees Cyclamen Coum – the hardy cyclamen does well in light shade. It flowers in late winter, early spring. They grow from flatish round tubers – plant them at or just below the soil surface they self-seed readily and will go on to form good sized colonies.
In the winter months do remember to keep dead heading the pansies and other flowers in containers and check occasionally to see if they need watering – especially if they are in the shadow of a house or porch. Keep off lawns and reorganise storage space in sheds and clean and maintain garden tools and equipment. Which reminds me I still have a large number of pots to clean before storing away for the winter – what a ghastly job – my pet hate!
December and January most of us slow down a bit in the garden, although as gardening is never finished there is always something to do and we never stop entirely. For keen gardeners the process is as enjoyable as the project and enjoying the process is the key to good gardening. So, enjoy the process and reflect on what you have achieved in 2022 rather than dwelling on what you have neglected. I will soon be making my Christmas wreath for my front door but as it isn’t ready yet – in true “Blue Peter” style here is one I made earlier i.e in a previous year. Happy Christmas to you all and best wishes for a peaceful New Year.