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Winter Colour

Now that most of the leaves are off the trees and shrubs, the garden has taken on a different look, but there is still plenty of interest. Our white and green variegated Holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteomarginatum’) has grown beautifully in a dry, shady spot and has plenty of growth that can be lightly trimmed to decorate the tops of pictures in the dining room over Christmas.

The star of the show is our Fatsia japonica; its huge shiny leaves make this a beautiful evergreen in a dry, shady border. The tropical appearance belies the plants toughness – hailing from Japan the tops get pruned by hard frosts but it grows back in spring as if nothing had happened! The curious white flowers appear through October and November and remind me of giant Ivy flowers. This plant is such a good doer with just a light prune and feed each spring.

The Dogwoods have dropped their leaves now and Cornus alba ‘Siberica’ glows in a damp shady corner with upright, ‘Santa suit’ red stems, whilst in the front garden the olive green stems of our Cornus sericia ‘Flaviramea’ are making good upright plants since I pruned them back brutally last spring! They had the most beautiful butter yellow leaves this autumn before they fell.

Talking of yellow, a walk in the garden this morning revealed the first flowers on our winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). These always bring a smile to my face. For most of the year, the plant goes unnoticed on a shady fence where it is an untidy mass of green stems. The leaves are quite attractive in a deep green, plastic looking way but they have dropped now. The perennials in front of the fence have died back for the winter, so the Jasmine is once again in the limelight. The flowers appear over a long season - carrying right through the winter until March, when the yellow on the fence is replaced by the yellows and golds of daffodils. Only the hardest of frosts damage the flowers, if the sun gets onto them before they have thawed out.

Lurking under an evergreen Euphorbia mellifera, which has been damaged in the last three winters but always grows back, is another winter flowering shrub, Sarcococca that is excellent in dry shade. The wavy, deep green leaves are always glossy and look impossibly healthy! In late winter, tiny white flowers appear up the stems. Their sweet scent will waft around the garden on warm days and have visitors hunting for the source. They find it hard to believe that such an unassuming shrub can pack such a scented punch!

I would not be without the Box in our garden. Ours are clipped into balls and pyramids, making strong shapes especially when covered in snow or frosts! Standing alone in their small borders through winter, they are surrounded by daffodils and tulips in spring and perennial Geraniums through the summer. The first of the daffodils have made an appearance through this mild weather that we have had and my early variety ‘Rinjveld’s Early Sensation’ should be in flower before Christmas to keep some of the Box balls company!


Down on the allotment...

Mmmm...sproutsEnthusiasm for my allotments has been difficult to drum up with the patchy weather and shorter days. I have a lot of respect for the workers who harvest vegetables in our fields so that we can go and purchase them in comfort, whatever the weather! Being lagged in mud is not my idea of fun, but it is more than compensated for by being able to supply our own winter vegetables, as well as plenty of onions and potatoes that are still available from the store in our garage.

Now that we have had a frost, I have started to pick sprouts as we need them for the kitchen. They are one of my favourite vegetables especially when par boiled and finished in a frying pan with a little butter, chestnuts and bacon – far too good to save for Christmas Day alone! Although the plants are a bit crooked due to the windy weather we had in the summer, they are full of tight sprouts which should easily last us until after Christmas.

My Parsnips have grown really well this year. I sowed the variety ‘Improved Hollow Crown’ later than shown on the packet, at the beginning of May. A friend of mine said that they would still make a good size for the winter and he was right – they germinated well and are enormous, but still tender. I know Parsnips are not everyone’s cup of tea, but Mrs McGregor chops them into fingers, parboils them and rolls them in flour, beaten egg and bread crumbs before freezing them on a tray and transferring them to a bag. They are then easy to roast from frozen and make a good standby for times when even a keen allotment holder is rained or snowed off!

ParnipsI have managed to clear a lot of spent crops from my plots now. Just removing the stakes from the runner beans and my last pea crop tidied the area no end and has encouraged me to start some winter digging. Weeds are still growing fast, due to the mild weather and I have reluctantly used some Tumble Weed spray on the larger areas that have been cleared of crops until next spring. This should keep the weeds at bay until I have a chance to turn the ground over.

Apart from perennial weed roots such as Docks and Couch Grass, I try to take as little green material away from the allotments as possible and single dig the ground. This allows me to bury any annual weeds and spent crops, such as dried pea and bean haulms, in the base of the trench that has been dug out. The layer of organic matter is then covered with the soil from the next trench and so the process continues up the plot until it has all been dug. I am not a very even digger but have found that with some enthusiastic raking and treading in the spring, I can get the plot more or less level and create a nice firm seed bed ready to begin the allotment year again.


Winter Protection

This year, although optimistic that it will be milder, I am determined to take action earlier to protect susceptible plants in the garden against winter damage.  The first stop has been my local garden centre to buy some ‘frost fleece’ that can be used to wrap up tender plants that we have growing in the ground, as well as a new heater for my greenhouse and some bubble wrap for any planted containers that are left outside.

Kniphofia Caulescens (Red Hot Poker)One of my favourite tropical looking plants is Melianthus major, with huge grey green leaves that smell like peanut butter – some people call it the ‘Peanut Butter plant’. Although an evergreen perennial in South Africa, its homeland, the lush growth will be cut down by hard frost. Last spring our plant shot back from underground after it had sulked for a while, but this year I am wrapping it in fleece and putting some chopped bracken over the crown for added protection to keep it cosy. Red Hot Pokers are another group of plants from South Africa that do not appreciate our current winter weather, so I will put bracken around the crowns of these as well, although I hope fleece will not be necessary.

Even the hardiest of evergreens may need extra care in winter. I have planted quite a few this autumn, so that Mrs McGregor has more material for her flower arrangements and to decorate the house at Christmas time. When the ground freezes up, they will be unable to take up water and will still be losing moisture through their leaves when the wind blows. This often results in plants dropping their leaves in spring and taking ages to recover as they shoot from the bare wood, only to be hit again with the same problem the following winter. Mindful of our exposed front garden, I am wrapping up the evergreens in fleece, tied securely to stop it blowing away through the winter gales! If our garden was not so exposed, I would settle for keeping the plants well watered in cold windy weather, or putting up a green netting windbreak, which is often enough to stop them suffering brown leaves the following spring.

As well as plants that are in the garden, I am taking more care of my planted containers, which seem to grow in number each year! As many as possible will be squeezed in to our greenhouse, along with the soft wood cuttings of tender perennials that were taken as an ‘insurance policy’ for next year in late summer.  These have rooted now and I have potted them up, but will be keeping them warm until next spring!

I have moved containers that have not made it to the greenhouse to a sheltered wall, so that they will not be damaged by cold, drying winds. The Hostas are all below ground now and will stand the coldest weather, but I will wrap evergreens in fleece and also bubble wrap the pots to try and insulate the soil and roots.

I hope that with all these extra precautions we will have a kinder winter and for once my work will not have been necessary!


The Real Deal - advice on finding the perfect tree 

We know it's still November and thoughts of buying a Christmas tree are at the back of everyone's thoughts, but when December looms large - what do you look for when picking a tree? Colin Dale, Plant Buyer at Notcutts offers his advice on finding the perfect tree this Christmas and advice on how to ensure it stays fresh and green all season.

“The key to a great, long lasting Christmas tree is not only looking after it once you get it home but it’s choosing the right one from the outset. Here at Notcutts we have a wide range of trees to choose from and top tips on how to ensure your tree stays luscious and green for the whole festive season:”

What to look for when choosing your Christmas tree:

  • A heavy tree will be holding more moisture in its stump which should put it in good stead for a season indoors, helping  it stay green and fresh for longer, so do have a good feel of the tree’s weight when looking for your perfect tree
  • To test the tree’s needle retention give the stump a modest bang on the floor. If it is already dropping needles, you would be wise to choose another tree
  • The traditional tree of choice is the Norway Spruce which is very aromatic but it is not the best at holding its needles. If good needle retention is key then the scented Nordmann Fir, with its glossy rich green foliage and fresh scent, is the tree for you as it is less likely to drop needles. The Frazer Fir is also good at holding its needles and it tends to be more slender than other varieties, making it ideal for smaller rooms

When you’re home:

  • When you get home, take approximately 3cm off the stump with a saw and immerse in a bucket of water before you take it inside. Like cutting the end of a blocked straw, you will enable the tree to draw up lots of liquid and you may find that it takes in several litres of water. This will prepare the tree for the coming weeks indoors, ensuring it stays green and healthy throughout the Christmas season
  • Once you take your tree inside, place it in a water-holding stand, away from any heat sources, such as radiators and televisions. This will give it the best chance of staying fresh
  • If you want to keep your tree after this Christmas and plant it outside, you will need to buy one with roots. Container grown trees with healthy roots have the same chance of survival in your garden as any other container-grown hardy plant.  If you are planning to use yours indoors again next Christmas, ensure that the roots have room to grow by choosing a larger container in which to plant it and ensure it is amply watered. If you would rather plant it in the ground, be careful where you place it as they can grow to a substantial size

Our full selection of real trees are available for purchase in our Garden Centres from the 27th November.

Looking for an alternative or artificial tree?

There's a great selection on our website - We also have a wide range of lights, decorations and gifts...make Notcutts your one stop shop this Christmas!


Autumn Colour

Mrs McGregor and I have begun to light our wood burning stove on colder evenings and the drop in temperature is also signalling to the garden that it is time to prepare for winter. Bonfire night is not the only colourful event in November – Mother Nature has a pyrotechnical show of her own for us to enjoy!

Autumn colour is all around us at the moment, from the trees by the road side that are beginning to glow gold and russet, to many of  the plants in our garden which have often been handpicked for the display that they give at this time of the year.

Acer platanoides - Norway MapleOne of my favourites is the Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) which we have crammed into a small space in our crowded back garden! It will get far too large in time, but is worth planting for the glossy, deep green leaves which colour to rich red and orange before falling to reveal the greyish bark. The flowers are tiny, deep red clusters that adorn the bare branches in winter and the wood is very hard – hence the name ‘Ironwood’.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is a bonfire of a plant, with pale green leaves that change to translucent apricot before falling to reveal the luminous deep orange stems that make eye catching, twiggy mounds. Often admired by visitors to our garden, I have decided to take some cuttings of this and other varieties of coloured stemmed Dogwoods. Raised from hard wood cuttings, the best time to do this is as the leaves are falling. I like to use wood that is pencil thick and cut it into 20cm lengths. Left undisturbed until next spring in an outdoor nursery bed, the cuttings will begin to root and can be potted up to grow on. I have also pruned my Black Currants and Gooseberries to tidy them up for the winter and made cuttings of these as well to increase my stocks for the allotment!

On the subject of bonfires, we have a Smoke Bush in the garden, Cotinus ‘Grace’, which looks stunning with the low sunlight shining through the wine red leaves. Cotinus are late to come into leaf in the spring but look amazing when the fine, grey flowers appear in late summer, coating the plants in a smoky haze – hence the name. There is also a yellow leaved variety called ‘Golden Spirit’ which I will shortly be planting in a shady border so that the leaves are not scorched by hot summer sun.

Another treasure of a plant for autumn leaf colour is our Japanese Maple which we grow in a large pot. We have the old, but tested variety Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’ which has ferny green leaves that make a congested mass and turn fox red at this time of the year, before revealing the gnarled, slow growing trunk.

Once the plants have had their swan song before the winter rest, of course the leaves will fall, so for now, it’s back to collecting these from the lawns and borders!