Kathy's Garden Diary
by Kathy Gray
I am writing this diary a couple of days before Christmas when it seems we may, once again, have some restrictions placed on what we can and can’t do. However, whatever happens I think we, as gardeners, have an advantage in that we can always go into the garden when much else may be closed to us. I always feel better for time spent with the plants!
January is the start of another gardening year which I always find exciting. Now is a good time to take stock and start planning where changes need to be made. One of the most useful things you can do is to take photos of the garden month by month starting now. So easy with smartphones. It’s sometimes hard to recall how much the garden changes over the year so a photographic record will help you make the right decisions. We have so many plants at our disposal, we never need to be without colour and interest in the garden, even in the depths of winter. Hopefully, you have some evergreen plants and grasses in the garden to provide colour and interest through the winter months. When we get a hard frost the grasses such as Miscanthus, Pennisetum and Stipa just sparkle. Ferns can also be evergreen and their diverse shapes add real interest at this time of the year. Look at some of the Polystichums or Aspleniums. In addition, there are also a wonderful selection of shrubs that flower in the winter and they all tend to be highly scented in order to attract any pollinating insects that may be around. I have often mentioned Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ which is a lovely evergreen shrub with the most wonderful pink flowers that are highly scented. Also consider Sarcococca confusa or S. hookeriana – the flowers look insignificant but they are so highly scented. Or perhaps you prefer a witch hazel – Hamemelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ has yellow flowers and has been given an AGM (Award of Garden Merit) by the RHS. Another lovely choice would be Chimonanthus praecox or Winter Sweet which is also wonderfully scented. And don’t forget those shrubs and trees that have an interesting bark or stems – Cornus for instance – perhaps try Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ with its bright red stems. Cut down the stems in spring, just after bud burst, to 2 - 3 cm. to maintain the stem colour. This shrub looks wonderful underplanted with snowdrops of, for a more dramatic contrast, the black grass, Ophiopogon nigrescens. If you have room trees such as Prunus serrula or Acer griseum (the Paperbark Maple) are wonderful additions.
Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’
Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ flowerPhotos: © Tony Gray
By now, you have most probably cut down a lot of your perennials that have died back although it’s always a good idea to leave some stems standing as they are beneficial to wildlife, such as insects who can hibernate in them. There are always lots of leaves to clear as well (although I expect you are all very efficient and have done that already); when collected, and if you haven’t room for compost bins, they can been put into black plastic sacks, with a few holes punched in and left to make wonderful leaf mould which is so good for the soil. I know it takes a year or so for the transition but I hide the sacks behind the shed and forget about them whilst the magic takes place. With much cut down you can more easily see what needs taking out or dividing and where new interest plants are needed. I have a weeping Caryopteris which, although lovely when in flower has, over time, become very brittle and there are crossing branches which can rub and cause disease. I think it might be time to retire this to the great compost heap in the sky. In its place I would like to plant a Euonymus or Spindle Tree. I love the bright rose pink fruits opening to reveal the orange seeds and some are good for autumn leaf colour. The one I have in mind is E. ‘Red Cascade’. I also have some clumps of Aster laevis ‘Calliope’ (now re-named Symphotrichum) – I wrote about it in my last diary and I will no doubt be thinning it out so let me know if you would like a piece. First come, first served.
I always try to add a mulch to the garden every year and this can be done from January, weather permitting. It’s so much easier to do when there are less plants growing. Again, it’s a way to add that all important organic matter to the soil and, if a good thick layer is put on the garden it will keep moisture in and stop weeds from growing. You may have your own home made compost you can use or, as I do, buy well rotted farmyard manure. I have, in the last year, discovered a brand of compost made by Melcourt*. The farmyard manure is excellent and doesn’t smell! Their multi purpose compost, either with or without John Innes (see photo) is also excellent and, most importantly, is peat free. It’s the only compost recommended by the RHS and I buy mine from Woodgate Nursery*, Cawston Road, Aylsham, NR11 6UH. It’s a bit of a journey but they also have some lovely plants for sale and, most importantly, a nice café! I have only scratched the surface of jobs to do at this time of year, but more detailed information is available on this website – see the garden tasks lists on the This Month and Next Month pages.
Melcourt 'SylvaGrow with added John Innes'
We had a very mild autumn on the whole and many bulbs are starting to push their way through the soil. Many of you know I love snowdrops and, at the time of writing, I already have three named varieties in flower, with a good number to come in January and February. Below are photos of some named snowdrops showing just how diverse they can be – despite the view of many, they are not all the same. However, I also accept that the sight of snowdrops en masse is hard to beat. A number of you will be aware that Judy and Barney have a wonderful display of snowdrops in their wood and are happy for people to walk around to enjoy them. Snowdrops, or to give them their botanical name, Galanthus, belong to the Amaryllidacae family. The most widespread representative of this genus is the common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis. The name is derived from the Greek meaning milk flower. When we have had a long hard winter or just a dull one, seeing these lovely little plants bravely flowering gives me hope that spring will arrive so do try to plant a few if you have none at the moment. And don’t forget that we have a visit to a garden for snowdrops in February.
Galanthus ‘Wendy's Gold’
Galanthus ‘South Hayes’
Galanthus ‘Augustus’Snowdrop Photos: © Tony Gray
Snowdrops in Barney & Judy's garden
Winter aconites or, as they are correctly called, Eranthus, also flower early. They are incorrectly called winter aconites because of the leaf shape which is similar to the leaves of Aconitum or Monkshood. Again, you can buy named varieties but whatever you choose, they are such a cheerful sight with their bright yellow flowers. You might also like to consider planting some other plants that flower early in the season and are more unusual. Trilliums of course, are so beautiful and so called because they have 3 petals and 3 alternating sepals. They like to be in a woodland setting and should not dry out in the summer so choose where you put them carefully, not least because they tend to be expensive to buy. Adonis are also beautiful plants and again, mainly prefer some shade. They are hardy, long lived plants from Europe and Asia that have fern like leaves and mainly (depending on the species or cultivar you choose) yellow, buttercup shaped flowers growing to between 20 and 30cm in height; indeed, they are member of the buttercup or Ranunculaceae family. Lastly, I’ll mention Ypsilandra thibetica – yes, I know it’s a mouthful but it’s a lovely plant from the Himalayas. It has evergreen rosettes of strap like glossy green leaves with vanilla scented flowers that are pale lilac/white. Again, they like shade or part shaded conditions and grow to around 30cm. If you are interested in buying these more unusual plants do have a look at the website of Edrom Nurseries in Scotland– www.edrom-nurseries.co.uk* – they have the most wonderful selection for mail order.
Trillium grandifloraPhoto: © Tony Gray
However, bad weather in winter is sometimes the gardeners’ enemy, stopping us from getting on with those important jobs. but there are always things to do indoors or under cover to benefit the garden. You might like to compile a list, area by area in the garden or alphabetically, of all the plants you have. By the time growth starts I have to be honest and say that I cannot always remember what I have planted so a list of my acquisitions is vital! The garden shed invariably needs sorting and tidying – well, mine does. The other major job is choosing the seeds that you want; when considering this don’t forget the offer we have with Dobies; remember UNG members get 50% discount at Dobies*. See your email or the Community forum. Some interesting winter reading can come via the tales of the Plant Hunters. We tend to take the variety of plants available to us for granted but many miles were travelled and hardships endured by these early plant pioneers. For example, read about the adventures of Ernest Wilson, also known as ‘Chinese’ Wilson and his travels to bring back some of our favourite shrubs such as rhododendrons and azaleas. Or how he introduced Lilium regale - the regal lily, but broke his leg in the process. He always walked with a limp after the break and called it his lily limp!
Whatever you choose to do, enjoy your garden.
Kathy, one of the Upper Nar Gardeners founders, has been writing about gardening for many years. We are pleased that, after a couple of years hiatus, she has been persuaded to start publishing a gardening diary again on this website.
Kathy is also Programme Secretary for the Norfolk branch of Plant Heritage, a national conservation society that oversees the National Plant Collections.