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Winter Borders Are the Most Dramatic of Them All

For many gardeners, the months preceding winter can be a depressing time. At this time of year, whilst there is the beauty of changing leaves and the excitement of planting bulbs for next spring, a lot of garden duties are clearance. Dying leaves, withering stems, the last fading flowers dropping their blooms signals an end to the year and a draining of garden exuberance. However, winter can offer some magical qualities for the garden, and not only is this time of year perfect for transplanting and putting in new shrubs, but pick the right plants and you can have fantastic interest throughout the colder months of the year.

Winter, perhaps more than any other season, is about creating drama in your borders, pots and green retreats. Spring brings the tender new leaves of plants, and summer is about a deluge of blooms and vigorously flowering borders, but the colder months offer the chance to create visual flair against a dark backdrop. Any hint of green will draw the eye, any eruption of colour will stir the senses, and it is for this reason that I adore the winter period.

Depending on your garden size and shape it’s important to consider planting possibilities. A dozen or so cyclamen or clumps of snowdrops can make a dramatic impact if placed in borders of a small garden. However, spread them through a larger garden, or around corners which cannot be seen from the house, and the visual impact is instantly lost. In you can’t afford to buy in bulk, consider planting containers on your patio or pots on your porch instead. And though planting winter window baskets is lovely, unless you have additional colour in your garden to pull your interest, your eye will go no further than the petals in your window boxes.

It’s not all down to blooms however, and some of the most visually stunning plants for winter offer not flowers, but fruit and stems. Cornus (Dogwood) comes in a various number of coloured stems including orange, red and yellow, and whilst plants can be monotonously green throughout the year, their branches become alive with colour during the colder months. This is especially true when set off against the browns, blacks and whites (snow prevailing) of winter. You can use these species in your garden for winter interest, planting two or three specimens together to offer islands of colour in your borders. The vibrancy of hues keeps for a long time even on cut off stems, and if you don’t have any plants but are lucky enough to know someone who does, see if they have some pruned twigs to spare. These can be pushed into the ground throughout borders or even pots to create colourful drama and you may even find that a few push out roots when the spring weather arrives.

If you have silver birches in your garden, cut down any obscuring foliage so that you can see the glistening trunks in full view. Meanwhile, leave pruning of plants producing red berries such as pyracantha, cotoneaster and holly until very late winter when birds will have taken most of the colour away. Callicarpa is an additional plant which offers luminous berries, this time of purple, and is a great winter season garden addition.

There is no need for winter gardens to be dull and soulless. Whilst you may not be spending much time in your oasis, adding colour in view of windows will draw your eye out into the garden through the long cold months. And whether you plant up visual containers, scatter winter beauties through borders, or offer some architectural elegance with vivid stems, the drama can be just as magnificent as at any other time of year.

This post was written by Geoff Wakeling, author of the popular gardening blog; The Guide to Gay Gardening


Tidying Up Jobs

The nights are certainly a lot colder now and the plants in our garden are beginning to prepare for winter. Many of the perennials are starting to die back, so I have been cutting them down and using the compost that I bagged up a few weeks ago as mulch around the crowns. The borders look very smart once they have been cut back, weeded and mulched! The mulch should help to protect the crowns of tender plants like Penstemons and Melianthus if we get another hard winter! Towards the end of next month I will be taking more winter protection measures – more about that at a later date!

The leaves are driving me mad! Every few days I rake them off the lawns, using a lawn rake, then wake up the next day to see more down! They must be removed regularly so that the grass does not go yellow and eventually die if it is left covered for too long. I like to compost them separately in a wire cage to use as leaf mould around Mrs McGregor’s favourite Rhododendrons in the spring, when I tidy up that area of the garden, once the daffodils have finished flowering.

The garden shed has been tidied out and I have strung up my onion crop now that they have dried completely. We have had a bumper crop this year and should have enough to last us through the winter. I planted the varieties ‘Sturon’ and ‘Red Baron’ last April as sets in a well trodden bed. Onion soup anyone?

Tulip Queen of NightAfter the first frosts of the autumn, the summer bedding plants are looking a bit worse for wear, so I have been emptying out the containers, and using the spent compost on the borders. I have added the plants to the compost heap to manufacture more lovely mulch for next year! We do not plant as many winter containers, so containers that I will not be using have been cleaned out with Jeyes Fluid and stored away from frost.

As well as winter Pansies and Violas, I am planting Tulips in pots to give some splashes of colour next April. I like to plant in two layers, so that the containers look really full. These pots are then put in a sheltered spot and kept watered sparingly through the winter. We also have to keep an eye on mouse and vole damage, as our elderly cat is no longer up to the job!

Tulips and Wallflowers are a delicious combination in the borders; the scent and longevity of the wallflower blooms contrasting with the blowsy tulip flowers, which appear from their architectural green buds that seem to take forever to colour up. Now that the borders have been tidied, I am able to see the gaps for these and planted them whilst thinking of the ‘black forest cherry’ scent that will waft around the garden next spring when the Wallflowers are in flower.


Late Flowering Perennials

Just a couple of years ago, our garden looked a bit tired by the time autumn arrived. We had plenty of colour from the first daffodils and Crocus in spring, right through summer with lots of perennials. Bedding plants in containers add spots of colour over a long season from late spring until the first frosts of the winter and of course the shrubs are always there, providing structure with their shape and leaves. But by the time late autumn arrived, Mrs McGregor was challenged to find flowers for church arrangementsRudbeckia Goldstrumand to brighten the house. We decided that rather than make a ‘cutting garden’ we would add some late flowering perennials to the borders, so that we could appreciate them along with bees and butterflies which are still busy on warm days.

One of the stalwarts of autumn borders are Michaelmas Daisies (Asters) which are available in a wide range of colours and heights. They do very well in sun or part shade and retentive soil, so I always give a good mulch of garden compost in spring and again when I cut them back for the winter after they have flowered. They are popular with late butterflies and bees as well as Mrs McGregor for her flower arranging!

Another of my favourites is Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ which is still in flower in our border now, wowing everyone with copious amounts of rich golden blooms. This plant begins to flower in August and continues until the end of October, brightening the dullest of days!  Once the petals have dropped, the club like cones which were the centre of the flower come into their own for winter decoration in the border and a good source of seeds for birds as they ‘fuel up’ for the winter weather ahead. They look great on a frosty morning along with any ornamental grasses that still have flowers on them. The plant makes a large clump fairly quickly, so again, Mrs McGregor has plenty for her vases.

Schizostylis CoccineaSedum ‘Autumn Joy’ lives up to its name with pink flowers opening from green, broccoli like buds. The flowers change from pink to deep red as they age over several weeks and are enjoyed by butterflies and bees. The seed heads can be dried to provide material for winter arrangements or left on the plants for more bird fuel! Sedums are happiest in very well drained soil and a sunny site. They are also excellent plants for coastal gardens.

My great friend Tricia Trelawny has Schizostylis (Kaffir Lily) in her garden in Cornwall, a county where they were once grown extensively as a cut flower in market gardens. Schizostylis are much prized for their late flowering season from autumn into winter, and their gladiolus like flowers that last for weeks in a vase.

So after a visit to my local garden centre, I came back with a couple of varieties to try – I will have to  cover them with horticultural fleece if the weather gets cold as it did last winter, or grow them in a large pot that I can move inside! 


On the Allotment - caterpillars, potatoes & making chutney!

I have been on caterpillar patrol at my allotments for weeks now and must have cut hundreds in half with my scissors. Gruesome thoughts I know, but last year they reduced my Purple Sprouting Broccoli to lace before the plants had even started growing! The bold black and yellow larvae of the Large White Butterfly are easy to spot, but the green ones, which are the larvae of the Small White Butterflies, are well camouflaged against the leaves!  I try to spray my vegetables as little as possible and physical removal is one of the best ways to deal with these voracious eaters! What with the local pigeons and the few caterpillars that escaped my scissors for a while, some of my sprout plants look a little tattered and one or two of the broccoli as well. But with a good feed of pelleted chicken manure and hoeing to keep the weeds at bay, they are strong enough to stand the winter now.

As well as my brassicas, including some plants of Cavolo nero or black Kale, that the caterpillars were not so keen on, I have two rows of parsnips and lots of leeks. All these vegetables are perfectly hardy and will stay in the ground through the winter so that they can be lifted as we need them. Ideal if we get cut off in our village again by snow!  At least we can always make some soup and homemade bread to warm us up!

Sarpo Mira PotatoesMy potatoes for store have all been lifted now and are in boxes in the garage.  ‘Sarpo Mira’ was my choice of main crop potato. These are a red skinned, blight resistant variety. I cut the top growth off at the end of August to prevent the tubers from getting starchy and lifted them during September on a dry sunny day so as not to take too much earth with them! Blight resistant they may be but the slugs were onto them and a few had been hollowed out to shells. Mrs McGregor spent quite a bit of time sorting through them to use any damaged ones first, only storing the perfect specimens which should last us until after Christmas. By not washing them and storing them in the dark, potatoes will keep well until next spring when they begin to shoot again.

The strong winds that we have had recently have almost finished off the runner beans and they are starting to go stringy. However, there are still enough to make a few jars of spiced runner bean pickle, which was a winner last year. The last of the courgettes are coming in as well but they have been disappointing this year –I don’t really know why. Mrs McGregor loves to make courgette and walnut chutney for Christmas presents but we have only managed two small batches this year.

Now it is a battle with the weather to hoe off the weeds on vacant areas and around the winter crops as well as starting winter digging when time and soil conditions allow.


Beetroot in Jelly

Big bunch of medium sized beetroot

1 Raspberry jelly

1pt vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Gently wash the beetroot and twist off the tops. Boil in water until tender and allow to cool. Slip off the skins and cut the beets into small dice. Melt the jelly in the vinegar over a low heat and add the sugar. Stir until everything has dissolved. Pack the diced beetroot into sterilized jars and pour in enough jelly mixture to cover. Set in fridge. Once set, label and store in a cupboard for use through winter.

This recipe has been passed down from my grandmother.

Courgette and Walnut Chutney

1 ½ lb courgettes, sliced

1 ½ tablespoons salt

8oz ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped

4oz onions, chopped

3oz sultanas

1 tablespoon coarsely grated orange rind (or lemon)

1lb sugar (Demerara is good!)

12 fl oz spiced vinegar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3oz walnuts, chopped

Put the courgettes in a colander and sprinkle with the salt. Leave for 2 hours then rinse and dry. Put in a pan with the remaining ingredients except the walnuts and heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Simmer until thickened and then stir in the walnuts. Pour into hot sterilized jars and seal.

Makes about 3lb.

Adapted from the book preserves and pickles by Heather Lambert.

Mr McGregor


Lawn Care Tips

Being keen gardeners our lawn always gets a lot of use through the summer. Whenever friends visit, they inevitably ask if they can look at the garden often with a glass of wine, when the weather allows! Children are safe and happy to play whilst the adults relax and leave them to their own devices. This usually results in even more wear and tear, but is counteracted by the laughter and animation that friends bring.

This week I have been busy giving the lawn some beauty treatment that should pay off through the winter months and next spring! I started by removing excess moss with a spring tine rake – a physical job but very satisfying as the moss is ‘scarified’ to reveal the earth underneath. The next task was to spike the lawn all over to aerate the soil and help with areas where the drainage is not as good as it could be. A special machine that removes plugs of soil can be purchased for this, but I like to go over our smallish lawn with a garden fork and sink the tines right in at about 15cm (6 inch) intervals. A good wiggle of the handle then opens up the earth channels. Once I had completed these two jobs, I was ready for a cup of tea and one of Mrs McGregor’s scones and strawberry jam!

Then it was off to the local garden centre to buy some sharp sand that I could mix with sterilised topsoil, in equal quantities. This was scattered over the lawn and brushed into the holes. I will now wait for a few days before using the autumn lawn care product that I also purchased. This will strengthen the grass for winter, by feeding the roots and also kill anymore pesky moss that appears now that the days are shorter! With the rain that is forecast, it will mean that I will not need to worry about watering it in either!

We have an area of rough grass in dappled shade under trees that often looks a bit neglected – an ideal area to brighten up with some Daffodils in spring. I have chosen a mixed selection that will flower over several weeks and can be left to die back naturally after flowering before the grass is mown.  After gently throwing the bulbs down so that they landed at random, I used a bulb planter to remove plugs of earth and placed a bulb in the resulting hole – the correct way up of course! Then it was just a case of replacing the turf topped soil plug and gently treading it down, keeping the buried treasure safe until next spring. Planting at the correct depth of three times the depth of the bulb seems cruel but ensures that they will flower in subsequent years and not come up ‘blind’.

Hopefully these Daffodils will slowly multiply to give a much need boost to a quiet corner of the garden for many years to come.

Mr McGregor

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