Busy Mid-Winter

The longer term weather forecast doesn’t look too bad. The mid-winter high pressure ‘Dog Days’ that I wrote about in my last post of 2018, now appear likely to persist until at least January 15th. Thereafter the Met Office are currently predicting more unsettled, perhaps stormy conditions in the third week of January, but that’s still in the future (just). Right now the name of the game is GET CRACKING! Midwinter is the one time of year when you can get on with those jobs that have a long-term effect on the look of the garden. This is when you change the shape of flower beds, plant new trees and do those things that can only be done when plants are dormant. And you don’t have long: in Britain, most plants will be starting to stir again by mid or late February – and thereafter they’ll be galloping ahead. So as I said before, now’s the time to get cracking!

And that’s precisely what happened: I spent the first two weeks of January reworking the vegetable garden path, inserting shelves in the new greenhouse and doing some urgent cutting-back and pruning. Then yesterday Parliament threw out Theresa May’s Brexit ‘deal’ by a record majority of 230 votes. And like everyone else in Britain I gave out a long, low moan. I don’t think I can take much more of this prolonged and bungled national suicide. Sanity lies out in the garden and with my next book. Anything rather than politics. Later, when life calms down, I’ll tell you about my latest book, which is due to be published on July 11th. It has been very technically difficult to write (as it combines at least two different chronologies), but thanks to my Editor (at Head of Zeus), Richard Milbank, it has now been finished. And as most mothers will later agree, following a long and difficult birth, it has all been worth it. I have to say, I’m very proud of it – and I hope my next blog post will whet your appetite. Incidentally, I like the look and sound of the word ‘whet’, for sharpen – hence whetstone, of course.

The New Year so far has been very dry and quite mild. Over-night frosts have been the exception rather than the rule, although late January and early February do look a bit cooler. Still, we could use a few sharp frosts to kill off some of the fungal spores and aphids left over from the hot summer and warm autumn. Winter frosts are essential for a healthy garden. I took the following seven pictures on January 2nd and while I was taking them I couldn’t help thinking about the nine winters I spent in Toronto in the 1970s. I could have been on a different planet – and I’m not saying which I prefer. Cold winters and sudden warm springs can make bulbs squirt out of the ground like athletes on amphetamines. But I digress. Herewith my pics.

Pleached limes

Rose hedge

Hazel catkins

Red berries

Winter jasmine

Nessie hedge

Vegetable garden

The top pic shows the limes shortly after pleaching, a job I like to do at the same time as digging the vegetable garden, as both are hard tasks that use different muscles. The veg garden (bottom picture) usually takes a bit longer to finish. I only dig ¼ of the garden (in this case from the Brussel Sprouts and Broccoli in the middle of the picture. The freshly dug soil has been mixed with about 20 wheel-barrowfuls of rotted sheep manure. This is where I’ll plant the new season potatoes, later in March. The second picture from the top shows the rose hedge along the front drive. This hedge is planted with a North American species rose, Rosa virginiana, which has pink flowers in summer and excellent winter colour – largely provided by its bright red stems and hips. This hedge is over twenty years old and is very easy to maintain. I highly recommend it. The next picture shows some of the first hazelnut catkins, which this year came out a day or two after Christmas and are currently looking superb (I’m writing this on January 16th). I don’t think I can remember a year when they’ve looked better. Below the catkins is a picture of the red berries on our Cretaegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’, which like the hazel catkins, have never looked better. Blackbirds waddle away from this bush, barely concealing loud burps. The picture below the berries is of a common and much under-rated shrub, winter jasmine, which again is looking superb. I try to prune ours to give an even cover of flowers. You can opt for larger, floriferous shoots, but I prefer a more even spread. On warm days I love to watch bumble bees flit from flower to flower; their intermittent buzzing seems to presage spring. Just above the bottom picture of the vegetable garden is a view along the rather eccentric ‘Nessie’ hedge that borders the back door asparagus bed. Quite often clipped box can look rather tired and battered in winter, but not this year. In case you can’t se it, the Loch Ness Monster’s head is looking left, at the end away from the camera. Our neighbour Obie is the creative mind behind the shaping of Nessie. Thanks to Obie, she gets better every year. Whatever your political views might be, I hope you all have a wonderful New Year!

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