The ground is white,
The winds are wild, They chill and bite;
The ground is thick with slush and sleet,
And I barely feel my feet.”
It is now the end of March and the garden is still stuck in the grip of winter. Mild weather at the turn of the year looked like it was going to encourage early flowering of daffodils, magnolias and other spring flowering shrubs. Flower buds were swelling and, if conditions had stayed mild for a week or so longer, buds would have burst and flowering would have happenend very early indeed. But nature, as it often does, intervened; high pressure that sits over the continent in winter spread westward and has been sitting over us ever since.
Over the last couple of months we have spent much of our time painting benches, graveling paths and clearing overgrown areas of the garden. Due to the wet, cold, snowy weather opportunity to get on to the garden has been rare, but when conditions have allowed we have been able to prune and muck the roses and the hydrangeas (more below).
One major job carried out on the estate over the winter was work undertaken on the site of Hodnet Castle, which is a Scheduled Monument. This work mainly entailed the clearing of undergrowth and trees from around the site. The work was carried out by local arborist company Nagingtons and by the estate woodsmen, Rick and Dave.
The castle that once stood on this site is thought to have been built by Roger de Montgomery, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, under William The Conqueror in the late 11th century. Originally of wooden construction, it was in time reinforced with red sandstone and a circular tower was added. The castle was garrisoned under William III. Fire is thought to have been the probable cause of the demise of the castle. All that is left today are the humps and bumps of the moats. Visitors to the garden are now invited to walk across the field to view the inner moat, which is still pretty impressive when seen close-up.
Winter Woes and Unfinished Business.
Despondent. If I had to pick one word to sum up my feelings about the garden at the time of writing it would be this. As I sit down to write at the end of March, the worst of winter is taking its toll. Heavy snow and freezing winds are wreaking havoc. There are none of the crisp frosty days and clear skies, the type of day when one takes the time to turn up the blooms of hellebores to admire the interior or sniff the spicy scent of Chionanthus praecox.
Perhaps there are two reasons for my mood. The first has to do with the state of the garden before all the weather related chaos. Despite best efforts it was still looking out of sorts; more reminiscent of November, before the weeks of serious tidying up than the result of such laborious effort. There were more leaves blowing around stuck in the grass than I would have liked.
We have changed tack in recent years. Whereas previously every leaf was blow out of borders and off of the grass and gathered up, the new policy has been to leave them on the borders. This is certainly the right thing to do. It avoids the compaction created by treading on the soil and saves time and energy by leaving the leaves to break down where they lie. What is the point of removing leaves to make leaf mould and then barrowing it back on to borders (doubling the compaction) when it will make good leaf mould if left to its own devices. It also prevents the degradation of the soil which occurs when organic material is removed, exposing it to erosion by wind and water and further reducing the topsoil. It provides an in-situ mulch that over time will retain moisture and smother weeds. Finally it stops the accidental damage done by clumsy gardeners!
All this of course depends on the leaves pretty much remaining where you put them and having the time to push them back to where they came from if not. Time is exactly the problem. This winter it seems to have slipped past so quickly that it has left little time for the touches of refinement that we might have employed. It seems to have been more than enough just to get the basics done! Now we have broken branches to contend with and debris everywhere. Added to which as the snow melts, the already wet soil will not hold up to the necessary traffic.
Doesn’t despondency affect all gardeners at some point? Aren’t we all perfectionists trying to wrest control of a space from nature? I wouldn’t mind, but spring seemed to be on its way. One of the main signs I look for eagerly every year is the flowering of Oemleria cerasiformis. This is a suckering shrub from America which can reach over 2m. In March clusters of pendulous flowers appear, small and pale greenish as the leaves emerge which give off an incredibly powerful marzipan scent.
The second reason for my low mood is the damage done by the snow and wind. This is especially true of the evergreens, including the camellias which have become unshapely in recent years. Ideally they should be cut off about a foot from the ground before this happens. This is usually done after flowering, they are then fed, mulched and left to reshoot which they usually do (although they can take a year before anything appears!). This year we have suffered from broken branches leaving quite serious scars. We had already tackled some of the camellias last month but those that remained have become casualties.
Yet as the snow begins to melt my spirits begin to lift. There have been unexpected positives such as the resilience of the hellebores. We remove the leaves when cutting back in the autumn as this prevents the transmission of disease and exposes the flowers to better viewing. All seemed lost as the flowers were bent under frozen snow. However, as the sun came out, up they stood again, proudly presenting their intriguingly mottled flowers. Another surprise was the emergence of crocus flowers as the snow melted. Bright purple against the dazzling white, splendid!
Suddenly it occurred to me, the solution to our problem with the leaves. Planting hellebores and other evergreens to edge the borders will hold back leaves whilst quietly fading into the background in summer. Perhaps this winter was not so bad after all!
In the Kitchen Garden
On the whole the kitchen garden is tidy and more or less ready for the growing season. The remnants of last year’s crops have been removed, weeds have been cleared and any mucking has been done. In my view muck is best left on the surface and not dug into the soil, worms will do that job. Make sure the manure or compost is well rotted and not spread too thickly on the surface. This approach, if carried out each year, will gradually improve the soil structure. Too much digging destroys soil structure and causes organic matter to oxidise more quickly than it needs to.
Normally I would have hoped that early sowings of luttuce, spinach, spring onion, radish and carrots would have been carried out by now. But the ground has been so wet, to the point of saturation, that it has been impossible to get out on to the garden. I fear that the soil has been so wet and cold, that seed would have rotted in the ground. Broad beans and peas have been sown, but there is no sign of these yet. These are under a layer of fleece, which helps retain any heat in the soil, but just as importantly keeps the birds, mice and voles from having the seed before they get a chance to germinate. Some sowings of lettuce etc have been made on the propagation bench to be planted out as soon as the weather allows. In order to catch up on the slightly delayed growing season, April will probably prove to be a very busy month for sowing and planting out in the veg garden. If you don’t want to be left behind, you’d better get under starter’s orders. As soon as the soil conditions allow get out there, otherwise the time will never be made up.
Please note: images have been removed from this pages because some of them may have been used without permission.