The terms January and Gardening do not easily sit on the tongue in the same sentence; the mere thought of going out now to do some work makes me want to curl up under a soft blanket with the lights low and a box of chocolates within reach. Looking out of the window is another matter. I might also go and take a photo on carefully selected days. Yet there are many gardeners - me included - who praise the understated beauty of a garden dressed in muted greens and browns on a sparkling cold day. I believe that grasses, phormiums and sedges rimed in delicate frost patterns achieve the pinnacle of their appeal at such times.
This January has been a very mixed bag. We had mild days at the beginning of the month when the Chaenomeles speciosa burst into bloom on its sheltered stretch of wall. The plant is better known as Japonica, Cydonia or Ornamental Quince; as is the case with many plants botanists and taxonomists frequently decide to rename them when new scientific details about them emerge.
A Jasminum nudiflorum clings to the stretch of wall next to the Quince; the two flower side by side, making a most unsuitably colourful display for late December and through January provided there is no snow and ice. Winter jasmine and ornamental quinces flower on leafless stems - hence nudiflorum. Both plants are fully frost hardy and very popular. The jasmine becomes a bit of a nuisance when it’s left unpruned - in March I remove one third of flowering shoots to keep it in trim. The ornamental quince is better behaved because its stems are thick and woody. Tie in as many branches as you have room for and cut back some of the oldest branches in summer.
Then came the snow and for a while the garden was covered in a thick layer of white fleece. There’s a whole different kind beauty then which has little to do with gardening. When the snow started to melt Mahonia Japonica (Oregon Grape) came into its own. I grow one large Mahonia J. which has rich wine-red to purple leaves in winter; when partly covered in snow the large leaves look like German Christmas cookies. Most Mahonias are fully frost hardy too, they grow well in shade. I am looking forward to clusters of yellow, sweetly scented flower spikes in February and March. Mahonias don’t need much pruning, I simply cut out unwanted stems in April.
Ligustrum Aureum is a very fancy name for the large hedging shrub we all know as Golden Privet. I inherited this bush from the previous owner of the house. Plants have a lot in common with books, I find it very hard to discard either unless they annoy me or don’t earn their keep; the privet is still here after fifteen years. The poor thing hardly ever gets a chance to flower because Gardener and I prune it back to a medium sized ball shape every spring, before its flowering buds form; in summer it sits in a large bed providing a backdrop for more showy plants.However, in winter it lifts a whole corner of the garden out of darkness with its golden leaves; it also provides shelter for birds. So, as shrubs go, it’ll stay.
For the moment snow and ice have gone. To my great surprise I found Beloved’s rhubarb beds showing advanced signs of life. The thing to do now is to mulch the beds generously with manure and put terracotta forcing pots over one or two plants. Pale pink early rhubarb is a prized delicacy in the UK. My relationship with rhubarb is barely luke warm, I can just about be persuaded to make a rhubarb crumble if Beloved asks me nicely.
The temporary lull in winter weather has brought forth a variety of welcome early flowering herbaceous plants. I will have to go out very soon and cut the foliage from the hellebores which send out the first flower shoots at Christmas, hence the name Christmas Rose, to give the flowers their time in the limelight. The leaves often get rusty and become very unsightly. New, deeply lobed leaves sprout quickly and will be fully formed by early spring. Hellebores are delightful plants, the large, saucer shaped flowers may be pink, purple or white, depending on variety. I have some varieties which flower later in spring, called Lenten Rose, whose flowers are speckled pink or brownish on cream. Gorgeous.
Any small trees or shrubs which leave space between the ground and branches and/or foliage are perfect for underplanting with spring bulbs. This ornamental weeping pear has a succession of snowdrops, grape hyacinths, daffodils and tulips growing round its small trunk. By the time the weeping pear’s drooping silver branches are fully out the flowers will disappear underground again.
Eranthis, better known as winter aconite, is another perennial that brings much needed colour to shadier areas of the garden in winter. It’s a tiny plant, no more than 10-15 cm tall; like snowdrops, it must be transplanted ‘in the green’, the tubers hate drying out. If it likes your garden (many people say that they have no luck with it) it will return year after year, growing en masse like a carpet under the bare branches of deciduous trees. Just as the canopy restarts casting its shade, winter aconites die back and disappear underground.
I recommend that those of you who garden go out and take a closer look at the small wonders braving winter out there; I was amazed at how much life there is. Writing these monthly posts is teaching me that the cycle of life in the garden never really stops and that not only the seasons, but separate fragments within the seasons have their own small deaths and rebirths.