February 2019 | Beauty in British Winter

February 2019 | Beauty in British Winter

Night shot, Queens Gardens, Croydon showing plants, lights and dark sky.

Hello again and welcome back to my blog for suburban gardeners. This time the banner heading is a night shot of Queens Gardens, Croydon – for me the combination of plants, artificial lights and darkness is visual magic. My broad focus in this post is the attitude change I am noticing. Happily there seems to be a growing awareness, one that is now becoming mainstream, that this is a shared world – we are not the only beings. It is noticeable in the way that things are discussed.

Quote from Chris Baines, naturalist, wildlife urban gardener and environmentalist –
“I studied horticulture in Kent in the late 1960s and, in those days, that often felt like three years being taught how to kill things.”

Watery reflections of trees in a stream
Watery reflections

I’d not heard such a comment before but I do remember a chance meeting that marked some sort of a turning point for me and has stuck in my mind. I was eating my lunch sandwiches in one of my favourite local public gardens and got into conversation with a couple of women sharing my bench. They were just visiting the area for the day and we started to talk about nature, gardening etc. They talked about their partners who were arboriculturists – who worked, I think, for a Borough on the outskirts of London. Listening to the green (in environmental sense) attitudes of these women was a new and welcome discovery and they talked about animals but killing was noticeably absent from their conversation. It was not long after this that I took up studying horticulture.

Gerald Durrell said that animal conservation is actually saving yourself. When populations of animals start to decline the same will eventually be true of humans.

Beauty in British Winter
Plant Textures

In this the quieter season I have continued to look for evidence of beauty in the British winter and found plenty. Interesting groupings of plant textures offer a great way of stimulating visual interest in the dormant season.

Group of plants of different textures

Above Phlomis frutticosa, Perovskia, Sedum and an ornamental grass give a mixture of dark brown seed heads and light-coloured dried stems plus an evergreen Yucca – a group of visually stimulating textures.

Clematis vitalba
Clematis vitalba

Clematis vitalba, also known as Old Man’s Beard and Traveller’s Joy – often found in hedgerows where clearly, it has always made a welcome sight in the winter with it’s fluffy white seed heads providing lots of texture.

Hedgerow of Clematis vitalba
Hedgerow of Clematis vitalba

This is a large and vigorous climber that wants full sun but is probably not recommended for the small or neat and formal garden. (Considered invasive in Ireland.) Pretty white flowers without petals in August and September.

Garrya eliptica 'James Roof'
Garrya eliptica ‘James Roof’

Garrya eliptica ‘James Roof’. Grow in full sun or partial shade. Evergreen and requires next to no pruning. Also known as silk tassel.


Callicarpa bodinieri
Callicarpa bodinieri

Callicarpa bodinieri. The beauty of this plant is in the berries that grace autumn and winter. I remember originally disliking the look of this wonderful plant – think that was because it was overly popular at one time and I kept seeing examples of straggly, untidy growth with just a sprinkling of berries.

Avoid this by keeping it neat by cutting back in early spring and it will reward you. Grow several together or in a mixed group. Likes sun or dappled shade. Apparently, this has been an outstanding growing year for Callicarpa and they are looking exceptional.

Berries of Hedera helix - Ivy
Berries of Hedera helix (Ivy)

Hedera helix. I have always liked the interesting shape and colour of Ivy berries. These also provide sustenance for birds at a time of year when there isn’t much food around for them.

Leaf colour

Display differently coloured leaves together for a strong contrast as with the pale Iris leaves and ultra dark hedge below (seen at Eltham Palace gardens) while Choisya ternate ‘Sundance’ retains strong colour even in the cold winter months of January and February.

Choisya ternate 'Sundance' retains good bright colour even in January

Early flowering plants

Ulex europeaus – Gorse.


Winter jasmine in flower.

Winter jasmine
Winter jasmine
Winter jasmine
Winter jasmine

Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. At bud stage the flower is a deep pink, once opened it is much paler and the overall appearance is a lovely range of dark-to-light pink tones to say nothing of the delightful fragrance especially at close of day.

Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn'
Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’
Plant textures make a good foil to modern glass building.
Plant textures make a good foil to modern glass building – not everyone can have this in their garden.

Pollinators and Poisons – officially serious

According to Gardening Which the government has allocated £60,000 to identify the best habitats for pollinators.

Horticulture Week reports Croydon Council’s decision to stop the use of Glyphosate weed killer in it’s parks and gardens this year.

Rosa Rosette Virus

In June 2018, in The Importance of the Rose post, I talked about Rosa rosette virus learned of via friends who were, fortunately, mistaken in fearing they had it in their rose hedge. The Telegraph published a short article recently about this – nothing much has altered in the meantime but Defra is now commenting on the virus which would indicate some certainty that it will inevitably occur in Britain or at the very least is a measure of how seriously that possibility is now being taken. As yet there is still no recorded case here but the virus has started to spread. The main fear is for the cut rose industry. The virus, which first occurred in Canada in the 1940s, has recently spread to India and first recorded there in 2017.

The RHS is sponsoring research into the disease – spread by a microscopic four-legged mite transported on plants, insects, wind or contaminated clothing – which is being carried out by Newcastle University and Fera Science Limited. Their findings will be published in 2019.

I backpacked around beautiful New Zealand some years ago and there I had the impression that the entire nation was highly conscious of biosecurity, something that was unfamiliar to me. Their government was as hot as you can possibly imagine at policing the borders for travellers carrying organic products. Clearly, in an agricultural country it would be strange if this had not been the case but maybe we need to become more conscious of biosecurity here too as more and more people become involved in growing?

This may be the quieter season in horticulture but certainly not the time when nothing is done, this is groundwork time – in both senses. Miss out the winter prep work and regret it all season. At the allotment the heavy clay soil is so much more biddable at this time because it is damp. There is pruning to do and early indoor seed sowing like leeks.

In the ornamental garden the equivalent of this would probably be the starting of the list of maintenance tasks – cleaning out small ornamental ponds, for example, is a task that is well worth doing annually as the visual attraction of any ornamental plants in the pond will improve dramatically later in the year.

Two sets of plotholder neighbours have remarked to me on their trials this year. One has produced the most attractive cabbage I have seen (called, he thinks, Winter Special) and the other couple are going to grow Sweet Potato for the first time. I have tended to keep to the tried and tested so, not to be outdone and after perusing the catalogues, I am going to try Agretti and Celtuce seeds this year.

Garden Space Saver

In the small garden, or allotment plot, devices for saving space are always welcome. I can’t claim ownership of this idea but I have certainly copied it. A couple of my fellow plotholders have been making a useful structure that saves so much space when growing squash – plants that would spread over the entire plot if allowed with their sprawling ways and big leaves.

Space saver
Garden or plot space saver

Pruned off any small branches this season? If so, keep them. The squash wigwam is sturdily made from branches that are well able to support the considerable weight of large squash like Crown Prince. It is a heftier version of the wigwams used for climbing beans.

I made mine last month with what was to hand and I would have liked even sturdier branches. I assembled it with wire because that is what I had, other people used nails or those clippable plastic ties. Five erect branches are strengthened with two rows of cross-bracers. You can support the fruits, when they get very heavy, with slings made from netting tied to the structure.

Might also be an idea for use ornamentally, in the appropriate style of garden, for growing several climbers (not too vigorous) because it can support weight.

Night shot in Queens Gardens, Croydon.
Night shots can be relied on to add some drama plus relief from dull, grey skies. Queens Gardens, Croydon.

London – National Park City?

My view, you may remember, is that as urban gardeners there are so many of us in this country that we have an important role to play. We can, and do, make a major contribution to the natural environment and our wildlife. Adam Nicolson, writer and husband to Sarah Raven put this very well when interviewed recently on Radio 4. He explained that there are “a million acres of gardens” in our country and what he feels is significant about this is that peoples’ gardens are mostly running alongside each other and could create corridors of sustenance for wildlife that are rapidly losing their traditional habitats.

He was also reacting to the news of a new forest to be created in the northern half of the county. No need, he said, but urged us to make use of these corridors. His message to garden owners is a familiar one – stop being too tidy, leave an area of brambles, an area of nettles etc Think of the future, he says – we have trashed soil organisms for the last 50 years we could stop doing this and think instead in forever terms.

I wondered if this meant that these corridors should be organized in some way. Then I heard about the London as National Park City initiative which sounds brilliant with its notion of enhancing “natural capital”. What exactly does it mean? Apparently –

A large urban area that is managed and semi-protected through both formal and informal means to enhance the natural capital of its living landscape. A defining feature is the widespread and significant commitment of residents, visitors and decision-makers to allow natural processes to provide a foundation for a better quality of life


Seed sowing

Oh joy – sowing seeds in January means it won’t be long until we are gardening again in earnest. A few seeds are OK for sowing indoors at this time of year and I have sown leeks, red onions and white onions. Last year you may remember I drew attention to Gardening Which’s report that the best onions came from sowing from seed so I am giving this a go. I, and several others at the allotment site, have been disappointed in recent years with onion results.

Seed sowing is the easy bit. I still have a few hours of preparatory work. Bye until next time. Happy gardening!

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