Thursday, 16 December 2010

Spaghetti and Box Balls

Freezing weather concentrates the gardener's mind on looking around, then looking ahead...

Now this is just getting silly - the UK has obviously slipped its moorings and drifted north. Everything is still frozen rock hard, including my compost. It has been beautiful though: for three days we had the most comprehensive hoar frost I have ever seen, making spiders’ webs things to be proud of and coating every branch and leaf with white, making smooth plants thorny and turning the delicate fountains of grasses Stipa tenuissima and Carex ‘Curly Whirly’ into thick  spaghetti. 

Heavy frost, especially with a bit of freezing fog to blot out the background, gives you the chance to look critically at the structure of your garden. Suddenly most distracting colour has gone and only form remains. Evergreen topiary of any sort really comes into its own when dusted with white: the fat yews outside Jim’s house look great but I have made a note to re-pot some of the box balls, which are looking a bit neglected, and to add to our stock of potted topiary.

Yews outside Jim's house

Toads or Porcupines
 I’d like to experiment with the box-alternative Ilex crenata, which I have seen used in Japan, and maybe try some more fantastical shapes with Lonicera nitida.  The latter is common as muck and therefore cheap and excellent for experimenting with, the tiny leaves make more intricate carving possible. At home I have a baby elephant made of L. nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’ – it lurks nicely near the greenhouse but does turn into a porcupine every now and then, as this is a fast-growing plant. In pots it slows down a little but still grows fast enough to make it easy to correct any mistakes. I also have a strange, stork-like bird which is morphing into some sort of eagle with outstretched wings. If it gets ideas above its station I shall chop it off and turn it into a toad.

When the cold starts to creep through seventy-four layers of fleece my place of refuge this week is the pottery, where I have been getting in Joe and Riv’s way by leaving crates of dahlia tubers to dry out near the kilns. I clear as much of the old, damp compost off as I can, leave them spread out for a day or two, then return to crumble off any bits I’ve missed, and when the tubers are dry (but not shrivelled) I bed them down in woodshavings and stack them under the greenhouse bench.

Too busy posing to catch anything.

Mice vs Fluffball

Last year most of the dahlias were stacked in a shed, the crates wrapped with fleece, but we had -18C and the majority turned to mush. Those in the (heated) greenhouse were decimated by mice so this year there must be zero tolerance of rodents, although Puss-Puss the giant orange fluffball is a fat lot of use - he prefers to hunt bigger things, muntjac probably.

Dahlias are fantastic in pots, so another winter task will be researching replacement dahlias I would like to order from Rene, the entertaining Dutchman who provides all our bulbs and tubers. And so we come round to my favourite winter gardening activity, which is imagining new and even more colourful displays for SUMMER. Hold that thought!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Will greenhouses, polytunnels, fleece and bubblewrap save us?

Winter for me involves a lot of gambling with the lives of my tender and borderline hardy plants. This week at the pottery, we seem to be the only place in the UK which isn’t at least knee-deep in snow. 

Snowy Day at the Pottery
On Monday I was greeted by the ominous smell of mould and rotting leaves in the polytunnel, so I have a nasty feeling that when a thaw comes and I gingerly lift the fleece coverings I will find a lot of deads and nearly-deads. For the moment I have to leave it alone as going in and out of this unheated shelter and letting the giraffes in (as we say in our family) won’t help.

Still, I love my polytunnel. Two years ago the old ramshackle one that used to lean drunkenly against the greenhouse collapsed in the snow and I lost a lot of big plants. I campaigned hard for a new one and the fantastically versatile John and Dave (whose main task is transporting and packing our pots) put it up for me and it really does improve the odds. I’m hoping that at least my cordylines, and the three big Echium pininana which I grew from seed will survive.

My greenhouse is heated to a minimum of about 6C and on frozen days I can still be usefully employed in there. Winter hygiene is very important, so I try to pick over the greenhouse plants regularly, removing any dead leaves and odd flowers to reduce the number of mouldy bits lying around. At the same time I keep an eye out for pests.
Watering sheltered plants is kept to an absolute minimum in this weather and a plant will only receive a little water if it can prove to me that it is wilting because it is bone dry rather than because vine weevil or rot has attacked its roots. There is no point in watering plants that are frozen; the colder a plant is and the fewer leaves it has the less it is able to use the water that you give it and the more likely it is to rot.

Let’s face it - unprecedented weather is likely to kill some of our plants. Greenhouses, polytunnels, fleece and bubblewrap minimise the losses but there will still be a few corpses lying about when spring arrives. For gardening to be a pleasure and not a source of constant anxiety you need to be philosophical about the death toll: not many plants are irreplaceable and sometimes a lost plant is simply an opportunity for a little retail therapy.