A very mild start to winter makes it seem shorter already!

Monday, December 23, 2013

I am usually feeling at my lowest ebb at this time of year, mostly because of the short dark days and weather unconducive to outside work -   but not this year. With the shortest day already past and some really mild days until mid month, I could carry on with essential outdoor tasks and after dark (4.30pm onwards) do some pottering in the  relative warmth of the polytunnels with BBC Radio 3 and the incomparable Sean Rafferty for company.


My tunnels may be relatively warm but the great glasshouse at RHS Wisley is positively baking!



The Wisley glasshouse is just 4 years old but already plants are well esablished and have made tremendous growth. I have put a glasshouse like this on my Santa list (plus of course all the finance to support it!) but Moira has cautioned me not to build up my hopes as Santa would not be able to get it down the chimney!



I have often struggled for content in previous December postings but as you will see from what follows, I have been spoiled for choice this year! As usual I have compiled this news item prior to Christmas Day. Any items arisiing after publication date will be included in January 2014 News



It was good to have such pleasant daytime temperatures and a distinct absence of frosty nights with only 5 temperatures below zero, minimum -4C on 5th of the month and a max of 15C on 12 December. In the week commencing 14 December the weather patterns changed when a strong southerly airflow brought heavy prolonged rain and howling gales which caused me to fear for the plastic on the small tunnel which is 14 years old but it held firm - this is not the month to be replacing polytunnel film. On 19 December around lunchtime just prior to a vicious hailstorm we had a single mighty clap of thunder preceeded by an intense lighting flash almost directly overhead which as I was in the garden cutting off old hellebore leaves, was a frightening experience. Later on that afternoon there was an incredibly intense but short lived snowstorm. Crazy weather!!


Garden update

Repairs to several sheds have been completed, some nursery benches rebuilt and all the raspberry beds (20 years old) have been ripped out of the fruit cage in readiness for replanting when weather permits. To continue to get reasonable crops from canes that old is quite an achievement showing I believe the merits of yearly feeding with fish, blood and bone fertilizer and copious additions of well rotted farmyard manure. All the remaining stray leaves around the gardens have been swept up and used to top up the mulch on the more tender plants. 


The dry mild start to the month was the perfect opportunity to have one of my occasional bonfires, only lit after dark to appreciate the flames. Ever since I was a little boy I have been fscinated by fire and a good fire like this takes me back to my childhood.



The remaining vegetables in the garden (brassicas, swede, turnips, salsify, parsnips, and leeks) look well and are harvested as we need them. Those in store in the stone shed need regularly checking especially onions, some of which are rotting at the neck, even though they were very dry before Moira strung them. Potatoes in sacks too need careful watching as only one or two blight infected tubers can quickly spread to all the others and if you have ever smelt  a rotting potato.......!

In the tunnels encouraged by the mild weather, I have propagated many perennials from divisions of plants in the gardens, and further cuttings of tender plants (especially salvias). They will all stay under protection throughout the the winter months. Careful watering is key to success closely followed by good ventilation to keep botyrytis at bay, not so easy when it is windy or frosty during daylight hours.


A hot bench makes all the difference to striking and overwintering tender cuttings. They may lot look much but when potted on next spring there should be in excess of 50 plants capable of growing to 6 feet by the end of next summer



I must briefly mention alstroemerias. We keep a good collection of the dwarf forms in the tunnels year round as they make great house plants (although they are reasonably hardy they seem to do better in pots and there are no winter losses). They have really thick juicy roots that from a division of just a couple of roots into 1.5 litre pots in early winter, will fill the pot to bursting in just 9 months. In order to keep them fresh for the next year they have to divided and so far we have  60 pots of divided plants! It is at a time like this when I do worry about my sanity!! but friends and neighbours benefit from a fabulous plant which can flower, in a range of colours, almost continuously throughout the year.


Alstroemeria readdy for splitting



The list of garden jobs is never empty and is regularly added to. The priority jobs for January are the repair of some wooden lawn edgings (much copied by visitors), and after the success of last year, weather permitting, the recommencement of the "Bittercress Wars" that pernicious weed which is already beginning to get a foothold in all the borders.

 What's looking good?

You must have wondered when you would get to the "12 Flowers of Christmas" a cheeky variation of the well known Christmas carol. I can't pretend for one minute that the garden is ablaze with colour but just to have a few outdoor plants in flower at this time of year raises the spirits as much as any carol, however well loved. The top plant is the rose with 5 contributors together with a mixed bag (some surprising) of other shrubs and perennials. In truth there are more than 12 plants but the headline wouldn't have the same ring and they are not as floriferous as the main contributors.


Shrub rose "Golden Celebration" 




Shrub rose "Kathleen Jane"  which is rarely encountered, with well shaped but but smallish flowers that integrate perfectly  into a mixed border




"Summer flowering!" anthemis tinctoria "Kelwayi"



The remaining members of the gang of 12 are:- shrub roses "Bonica", "Jacqueline du Pre" and "Kew Gardens", a pink achillea millefolium, erysimum "Bowles Mauve", cyclamen coum, primrose "Belarina Pink Ice", and 2 shrubs mahonia x media "Charity" and lonicera x pupusii "Winter Beauty" a  shrubby honeysuckle with scented white flowers until spring.. 

 The "Christmas Rose" (what a stupid name! -it is in the buttercup family!!) helleborus niger. has a few relaxing buds revealing glimpses of the beautiful white flowers, as do the increasingly popular and very vigorous hybrids of sternii and ericsmithii of which the the best I have found are "Winter Moonbeam" and "Pennys Pink". Sarcoccoca with its wonderful scent, is full of buds, amazingly hardy when you consider where it comes from. It has a large range from Afghanistan, through the Himalaya to the Philipines although of course some of the species from warmer climates may not be hardy here. Whatever you buy in the UK will prove to be perfectly hardy and reliable in most parts and in all winters. 

In the polytunnels we have just finshed cutting chrysanthemums and still in flower we have the last few flowers on a potted brugmansia, the never ending flowers on jacobinia carnea a shrub from South America, the lovely glaucous leaves on Moira's succulent collection and the remaining tomatoes on "Rosada" just enough to garnish the starter for Christmas Dinner with friends. As I have said before it is  such a thrill to be able to do this.


You want exotica? Jacobinia carnea provides it in spades almost year round. I have also a white form and an interesting bicoloured flowered form introduced from Holland which looks very promising but is too young to have flowered yet.



Finally and bang on cue, the "Christmas Cactus" are flowering well after a prolonged spell outdoors in the glorious sunshine of last summer. Our biggest plant is huge, too big to get your arms around and covered in flowers. It certainly is ablaze with colour.




Wildlife and countryside

Until a few days ago I was worried that, aside from the usual robins, blackbirds and a few other featherd friends, there was little news to report under this heading. A case of "nature sleeps,winter creeps". Then all of a sudden there were 2 significant news worthy events.

A substantial flock of starlings landed in the Lodge Field opposite the house, the first I have seen this winter. It grew and grew as other smaller flocks joined from all directions. The birds scoured the grass in a kaleidescope of patterns; some running, some flying up a few feet above the ground, others just grubbing around. All the while there was a constant hum or warbling which gives the name to such a gathering - a murmuration of starlings. There didn't appear to be any sort of feeding activity. Briefly without any warning they would all take off only to land a few yards away and repeat the pattern on several more occasions. All the time (about 15 minutes) I stood primed with camera on 20X zoom, ready for the moment when, seemingly as one, they would take of to fly to pastures new, which is typical of this kind of starling activity. I was pleased to have recorded the moment they all took off, which is one of the most unforgettable sights of the countryside in winter.


A section of the murmuration taking off. I rather like the way the sheep in the background are totally underwhelmed !  If you want to see some truly amazing pics of huge groups of starlings check out some of the  You Tube videos


Then today whilst cutting off the old hellebore x hybridus leaves, which revealed some very advanced flower buds, I was alerted to considerable commotion in a hedgerow of the Lodge field - quite a bird hot spot this week! I rushed to the scene where I counted 17 magpies apparently attacking a lone buzzard caught in the hedge. As I got nearer the magpies took off accompanied by their menacing machine gun chatter. I expected to see the buzzard rather the worse for wear but it too flew off leaving me Poirot like, to investigate the crime scene! The cause was quickly established by my rapier like powers of deduction! The buzzard had caught a woodpigeon and as it was about to tuck in, the ever alert magpies came to join in the feast. 


Visits and visitors

Just one very enjoyable talk to Brecon Horticultural Society this month before the usual mid winter break. Talks recommence in February on a number of topics in a variety of locations.

We have used this quiter time of year to have a break visiting Kent, based in Sandwich on the east coast. One of the Cinque Ports, it is a very old town considered to be one of the finest in England. There is so much of interest in the area; in stark contrast to our part of Wales there are no hills, hedges or livestock but with arable land as far as the eye could see in the flat landscape, prime vegetables, hops and fruit and near Margate a modern horticultural development of greenhouses growing year round tomatoes, peppers and other salads. It is the called "Thanet Earth" situated on a huge site which is looking to expand even further. 

There are some very attractive towns such as Deal on the east coast and our favourite Whitsable on the estuary of the Thames, still a fishing town sitting alongside an eclectic mix of shops in a bustling and vibrant town centre.


The Georgian seafront at Deal with Hi Macs dragging shingle up the beach presumably to reinforce sea defences



Fishing boats launched form the beach deliver their catch of herrings sold direct from stalls on the beach - 4 for £1!!




This pic. tells you all you need to know. Reputedly the finest oysters.



Sky and sea meet in a beautiful abstract way looking over the Straits of Dover 


You cannot however visit this corner of England without a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral dating from the 12th Century. Whatever your personal beliefs, you could not fail to be moved by the magnificience of the building, the skill of the craftsmen who built it (and still maintain it) and the vision and conviction of those who conceived it. The building is full of history, which imposes itself on visitors in so many ways, from the place where Thomas Beckett was murdered at which spot a candle burns in perpetuity, to a simple candle around which is bound a single strand of barbed wire for all prisoners of conscience, the many memorial tablets of the great and good and so many artefacts and historical items held in the Crypt, the oldest part of the Cathedral. For us though the most special moment was to hear, accompanied by the organ,  the choir sing Parry's anthem "I was Glad" and Handel's "Zadok the Priest". I have heard these many times but the majesty of the setting and the purity of the sound transported them to another, unforgettable level.


Canterbury Cathedral in all its guises.







Thomas Beckett's tomb





Old meets new!




On the way home, and why not?, we took a short detour to RHS Wisley just a few miles from the M25 to see the garden in winter for the first time and visit the enormous Christmas Craft Fair .





A beautiful white form of narcissus bulbocodium in the Alpine House 



A white form of camellia sasanqua with scented flowers from November onwards. I just wish I could grow this beautiful simple form with the scent a bonus in the depths of winter 



There was an amazing exhibition of botanical prints of drawings  of chrysanthemums by Keika Hasegawa from "A Hundred Chrysanthemums" dated 1891. Go to the RHS website at RHS.org to find out more. They were all beautiful but these were two of our favourites.  This one is "Golden Ball"

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And there is no English equivalent name for this one but what a flower



Finally back to the real thing a passiflora from the Tropical section of the Glasshouse



All that remains for us to do is to thank everyone who has contributed in some way to our enjoyment of the gardening year. The visitors of course who provide the donations to the NGS, our friends and neighbours who support us, the clubs and societies who invite us to speak to them, the visitors to our website, the occasional correspondents and for all the kind comments and encouragement we receive from our many old and new  friends in gardening both in the UK and overseas. May you all have the very best Christmas, a happy and  healthy New Year and a memorable gardening year in 2014.


A special Christmas card to all our readers - one of the many exceptional stained glass windows at Canterbury Cathedral.


With warmest regards,

Keith and Moira.