Old December's bareness has gone, welcome to longer days of light divine

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

If there is one thing above all others that I look forward to in January, it  is the almost imperceptible lengthening of daylight hours (about 2 minutes per day). Here in the west of the country even on a dull day, it is now light enough to keep working outdoors until 5.30 pm and I can't tell you how good this feels.

Bright sunshine from winter aconites


And the first decent sized clump of a snowdrop that has so far eluded identification


Looking back to last January the incessant rain was utterly depressing, but that paled into insignifcance when compared to my hospitalisation and diagnosis of a rare form of lung cancer. I resolved then to make the most of every day and to keep cheerful. This has served me well and at the start of the new year I have made the same commitment to continue as long as possible. Even something simple like lighter nights lifts the spirits and recharges the batteries. Even the birds must feel something similar because some have already started to sing again. 

However the earliest flowering plants have not shared the same inclination to get going and we still await the first full flush of snowdrops and hellebores. Read on for all the joys of gardening and living in a special valley in the heart of Wales





A mixed bag of weather, nothing too extreme or severe and plenty of variety to enjoy, including some milder, drier spells to get on with some serious gardening. There have been some fabulous sky scapes too.




13 rain days, 12 nightime frosts min -6 on 3rd and 5th, strong winds on only 3 days and none of the fog that blighted most of the UK mid month. On 12th there was a light dusting of snow on the surrounding hills which only fell as sleet or hail here.



Garden update

One of the major jobs of the year is the main borders clear up: all the 500 (yes really!) plant stakes removed, the haulms cut back and weeding in the Paddock Garden completed. It is good to be on top of this so early in the year.  I say it tentatively but there does appear to be less weeds this year, especially bitter cress, although lesser willow herb is more prevalent. Both annuals they are easy to remove. I hope I don't live to regret such optimism!!





We are still enjoying our own vegetables from the garden and in store. Brussels sprouts in particular have cropped almost continuously since late September thanks to careful selction of early and later varieties. 


Roasted root vegetables from the garden and stored are a supper favourite and include celeriac, parsnip, swede, carrot and beetroot.


After some severe night frosts in December I was amazed to be able to harvest these fine heads of broccoli on the last day of the year, thanks to protection from 7!! layers of horti. fleece.


On wet days or after dark the polytunnels are the place to be, with one of the main priorities being seed sowing of sweet peas and early vegetables, especially those like the onion tribe which need a long growing period. My large order of seeds from the Hardy Plant Society's seed distribution scheme usually arrives in early Fedbruary, so it is due to get a whole lot busier! We have also started potting on or tidying up the overwintered plants in the frames, polytunnels and greenhouse and taking some cuttings when possible. Moira does much of the potting on work which she rather enjoys in the warmth of the tunnels!


My little refuge in the propagation tunnel surrounded by all my essentials and Radio 3 for company


A sunny, windy day on 26th dried out the lawns for the first time in months which gave the perfect opportunity to make a final application of winter lawn feed. It is rich in phosphate and potash, with added iron, but very low in nitrogen as it is formulated to feed roots not foliage.   I made the first treatment in October and the grass has stayed remarkably green all winter.


What's looking (smelling!) good

In late January I would normally be extolling the virtues of snowdrops and hellebores, but in common with many of our gardening friends and acquaintances, they are very slow to flower this year.  The reason for this I suggest is that the sharp frequent frosts we had in November and December set back the formation of flower buds. A year ago in spite of the continuous rain it was a very different story with the majority being in full bloom. It was however a very mild winter which brought all the plants forward. 

Sparse flowering in the Beech Hedge Walk, our main winter border, on 19 January


"Winter Moonbeam" one of my favourite hellebores in the x ericsmithii section, the result of a 3 way cross between h. lividus, h.argutifolius and h.niger. Not the range of sepal colour or patinatation as those in the helleborus x hybridus group (formerly orientails), but vigorous growers with lovely leaf markings coming from h. lividus. More of these are coming on the market each year as the result of successful. imaginative, breeding and micropogation techniques. 




Helleborus niger is notoriously difficult to cultivate lasting only a couple of years in most cases before it fades away. We  have had this fine clump for upwards of 5 years and it gets bigger and better each year. It seems to be a strong clone coming to us without any cultivar name and revels in part shade in well drained soil at the back of the Koi Pond and a feed once a year after flowering with fish blood and bone, as all the other hellebores have.



Good old reliable and totally bomb proof cyclamen coum however have filled the gaps and whatever the weather, will continue until the end of winter.


One of the undoubted highlights at Cilgwyn and especially Aberglsney. which we visited last week, is the perfume arising from a from a range of winter flowering shrubs. Inconspicuous for most of the year they come into their own from Christmas until the early days of spring. The star plant here with the strongest scent is a large sarcococca in part shade on the bank behind the Paddock pond,  the perfume of which on a sunny day can carry over 30 yards away. 

Bright shiny green leaves on sacococca confusa and the small white flowers which give such delight



Hoysusuckles are a staple of the summer garden but less common are the lightly scented winter forms as in loncicera x purpusii "Winter Beauty". The perfume is not so powerful but cut a sprig and bring it into the house and it will fill the room.


One of the finest of all winter flowering shrubs/ small trees is daphne bholua in its various forms. I have tried it without success at Cilgwyn so had to rely on Abergglasney for this pic.


Also at Aberglasney this fine unlabelled hamamelis possibly h. "Pallida" one of the best scented forms.



When flowers fail you there is always the infinite variety of leaves to enjoy


Or the remains of last years seed heads as on this hydrangea 



Wildlife and countryside

It has been very much a case of  "winter creeps,nature sleeps" this month with just old faithful robins, wrens, tits and blackbirds for company and a few small mururmurations of starlings.

One morning however I got rather excited by a large bird of prey flying overhead, with slow purposeful wing beats , showing pure white underneath. A flight of fanatsy overtook me in my half awake state and I concluded that it must surely be an osprey. Yes I know that ospreys overwinter mainly in Africa, but reason only returned some time later. It is however interesting to note that sightings of ospreys along the valley of the River Towy, less than a mile from us, are not uncommon in summer months. There is a breeding centre about 40 miles from us at Dyfi Osprey Project near Machynlleth and they are known to travel long distances in pursuit of fish.

A few days later all was revealed when I spotted a part albino buzzard (which are not uncommon) perched in a tree and I am sure it had a rather cheeky smile on it's face!

I had another unusual but easy to confirm bird sighting when a cormorant flew overhead, fortunately not stopping to check out the contents of our fish ponds. We  have have had occasional sightings over the years and once one did land and started fishing! We are 25 miles from the nearest sea which illustrates how far they will travel, especially when conditions on the coast prevent fishing. They can be a real menace on fisheries and fish farms.

On the subject of fish I was sad to find this Koi carp dead in the pond. As you can see it had succumbed to fungal infection on the fins and tail and the abdomen which had partly split open. A sad end for a  fine 10 year old fish.




Just one garden visit this month to Aberglasney, our nearest large garden which is open every day except Christmas. It first opened in 2000 and is maturing very well. It has been quite an experience to observe developments during this time, the latest of which is the building of a large propagation complex which made me very envious! It is a very good late winter and spring garden and is well worth a visit at any time. Go to www.aberglasney.org for more info and visiting times.

Images of Aberglasney last week


The walled kitchen garden with the glasshouse of the new propagating unit in the background






This superb stand of narcissus "Rijnvelds Early Sensation" has been in flower since Boxing Day.



One of the gardening highlights in West Wales at this time of year is the annual Winter Gardening Weekend held in the Tysul Hall, Llandysul, SA44 4QJ. The dates this year on the 20th anniversary of the event are 17, 18 and 19 February. As ususual there will be a superb stage display created by the local Farmyard Nurseries, Gold Medal winners at Chelsea and other RHS shows. Each day there are 3 talks on a variety of topics and a wide range of plants and crafts for sale. Refreshments too of course. Please come along and enjoy the best free gardening event you will ever visit! On Saturday 18th at 1p.m I will be sharing a talk entitled "Hellebores - A Shared Passion" with my very good friend Richard Bramley. As with all the talks it should be great fun and highly informative. For more details please go to www.llandysul-ponttyweli.co.uk