Girton Green Fingers - December 2013
I am writing this in the second week of November and there are still splashes of colour in our garden. The fuchsias, liking the cool moist weather, are flowering better than in the summer; dark red penstemons (the hardy variety Garnet), backed by pink and red cosmos, form an eye-catching group. Repeat-flowering roses are still blooming: the small shrub rose Bonica may bear its clusters of pink flowers for a week or so yet, provided there is no severe frost. A chrysanthemum, nerines and schizostylis (a hardy plant from South Africa, the Kaffir lily) have not faded. The arching stems of the winter jasmine are already sprinkled with yellow flowers, which may be damaged by frost, but will reappear with every mild spell.
By the short days of December, however, gardens will almost inevitably have lost a lot of their colour, although hollies, cotoneasters and pyracanthas should still be clothed in their red or orange berries. The enduring foliage of evergreens gives structure to the garden in winter. This is the time to take stock of your garden, to see where an evergreen might add interest. There is a huge range to choose from and some have the bonus of scent. The flowers of sweet box (Sarcococca) are tiny, but very fragrant; this is a hardy plant which thrives in shade. Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' has fragrant purplish-pink and white flowers in early spring; it needs a sheltered position in sun or partial shade. Some species of shrubs will give a choice of leaf colour: the common Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata) has mid-green foliage, while Choisya Sundance has yellow. There are many shrubs which offer variegated foliage: aucuba, euonymus, hebe, holly, pittosporum, to name just a few.
Deciduous trees still have something to offer, though: the tracery of bare branches against the winter sky can be beautiful. The red or yellow stems of the dogwoods (Cornus sanguinea, Cornus alba) light up the border; remember that these need to be pruned hard each spring, as it is the young stems which are brightly coloured. The most popular plants for vibrant, winter-long colour are of course the pansies, violas and primulas which, planted in front gardens, cheer me as I walk past.
We are all grateful for the respite from the repetitive chores of mowing and weeding, but there are still jobs to do! Bulbs in pots may need to be covered with wire to prevent squirrels unearthing them. Protect borderline hardy plants like fuchsias with a dry mulch such as chipped bark. Apples, pears and quinces can be pruned once their leaves have fallen, but not cherries or plums, which risk infection by silver leaf disease: prune them in summer. Remove the leaves of hellebores and burn them or put them in the black bin; this will help to control the fungal disease leaf spot and the flowers will be more visible in spring. We like to have berries in the garden to feed the birds, but to ensure you have some berries for Christmas decorations, wrap fleece round a few branches. If you haven't already done so, it is wise to insulate outside taps and drain hoses and watering cans; even metal cans can be distorted if water freezes in them.
Now news of a garden visit with a difference! At Anglesey Abbey, on November 30th, December 1st, 6th-8th, and 13th-15th, the winter garden and riverside paths will be illuminated after dark, from 5.30 to 7.30pm. There will be music, entertainers and barbecued food along the route. It is essential to book and tickets cost £10.50 for adults, £7.50 for children. See the 'Winter Lights at Anglesey Abbey' website for full details.
Valerie Hall, Girton Garden Society
George Thorpe's Tip of the Month
Plants in pots outdoors have to put up with freezing winter weather, which can be a killer. As the temperature drops and persists the compost in the pot freezes from the edges towards the centre, and even for a hardy plant this will eventually be fatal. Ironically they can't take up water, because it's frozen, and they die of drought! You can improve the odds by bringing the plant into a sheltered spot, by reducing the amount of waterlogging (remove saucers, cover the soil in order to shed water), by wrapping some bubble-wrap round the pot, and by packing pots close together to cut down on draughts.
A large dahlia that I'd left in the ground last winter survived ok, but it didn't flower until early September, so this autumn I'm going to lift it, and store the dry tuber in the shed (frost-free). I will also lift a showy Hedychium (false ginger), which usually follows the flowers with gaudy seeds, but not this year, because it came into flower too late. For nearly 20 years we averaged such mild winters it didn't make sense to lift such nearly hardy perennials so gradually I did so less and less, but with winter weather now so hard to predict I think it's worth the effort of lifting and potting.