January 2021

So here we are again at the beginning of a new year with plans for our gardens and possibly (or is this just me) still surrounded by seed catalogues and wondering if this is the year to grow Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ for home and would Gaillardia ‘Dazzler’ survive the winter in my front garden if I grew it from seed.

Such are the questions in my mind as I lie on the sofa after lunch and dream of warmer days and putting my spade into lovely friable soil rather than clarty clay mud.

Not that I don’t enjoy winter. When you are a gardener you know every season has its purpose and that the wax and wane of the year is all part of the ebb and flow of life on earth.

We owe much of our existence to that fragile layer of soil (obviously oxygen helps too) and we understand so little about it. There have been a number of really interesting articles about the importance of soil in the media recently by people far smarter than me. I will name check only one: a short film on the BBC Ideas website, entitled ‘Why soil is one of the most amazing things on earth’. Definitely worth a watch.

But I digress from what I started to write about which is the beauty of our winter gardens. I know we see articles every year saying don’t over tidy your garden as it is an important place for hibernating wildlife.

Which is all true but sometimes the urge to do something about the mushy brown mess covering the soil is almost overwhelming.

I’ve made my peace with this one by cutting down anything that has flopped and is turning to mush and leaving all the bold erect seed heads till February. I used to leave them till March but with growth starting earlier and earlier I need to get rid of old leaves from things like hellebores and epimediums sooner in order to avoid accidentally chopping off the developing flower buds.

Seed heads moving in the wind or sparkling with frost on a crisp day bring something special to a winter garden and there are many great perennials that will do sterling service for you twelve months a year, requiring only that you give them a hearty chop in February or March plus the occasional divide every 3-4 years.

It’s perhaps not everyone who wants to grow teasels in their garden (they are cheerful and prolific self-seeders) but if you have a wilder patch they look amazing and have the added benefit of being a food magnet for birds, gold finches in particular.

Star performers here at the garden would include Phlomis russeliana (Turkish or Jerusalem sage) with sturdy, weatherproof heads above leaves that remain green in all but the hardest of winters. A very slight drawback is the hairy leaves which can catch the back of your throat and make you cough if you have to chop down a very large stand. A handy bottle of water always helps.

Others would be Echinacea purpurea (Purple Cone Flower) whose petals drop to leave striking little black balls and Eryngium planum (Sea holly) an ornamental thistle whose metallic blue little heads slowly turn bronze over winter.

Grasses are superb for bringing motion, sparkle and wildlife to a garden in winter. Here we have plenty of Miscanthus species, Anemanthele lessoniana (Pheasant’s Tail) and my personal favourite Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (Feather Reed Grass).

The more I think of it, there are so many plants that just keep on giving winter and summer that I may have to continue next month. Watch this space and enjoy your garden.

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