Winter took a long time to arrive this year. A mild wet Autumn extended all the way through December and even in the first weeks of January a few lonely leaves still clung obstinately to the tips of the oak trees branches.
Then one night in mid January it finally came. Jack Frost’s icy grip took hold and the plants finally began to slip into their winter slumber. The garden reached the low-tide point of the year.
The sky is grey like lead, and it seems as though all the colour has been sucked out of the scene. Even the bright green laurel hedges appear pallid in the cold.
The summer frock of leaves has been lost and plants stand bare and skeletal. The hardiest take on a new dimension as their outlines are highlighted by a hoar frost. Even sound seems to have left the garden, as the chatter of birds dampens to an eerie silence, with only a few robins brave enough to venture out from the nest in their hi-vis jackets.
There is little to do with the borders when it is this cold. The herbaceous plants are dormant, and are best left now until growth starts again in the spring. The sodden lawn could easily be damaged if you stray from the solid footing of the path. So the best thing we can do is take stock. It’s a great time to make a note of any gaps and consider what could make the most of that space next season. It’s time to retire to the (relative) warmth of the shed to sharpen tools and make a wish list of plants for the spring.
It’s a great time to work with the trees. They give a natural shelter and their protection seems to add a couple of degrees in the winter. It’s the perfect time for apple pruning; reducing the sappy growth of last year back to the short, fat flowering buds, full of the promise of blossom. I also love thinning the stands of hazel coppice, creating natural stakes that will support the vigorous Spring growth.
Any work in the garden needs to be vigorous to generate heat and keep the cold at bay. Once the extremities get cold it is almost impossible to warm them up again, so the only sensible policy is to keep the toes and fingers well wrapped with thick socks and gloves until they can be warmed by a fire.
With so many plants reluctant to make a display, centre stage is occupied by only the hardiest of plants, a such as hellebores and snowdrops who will brave even the coldest weather to show their best. On the few bright, crisp days we are blessed with shrubs such as Witch Hazel, Viburnum, honeysuckles and Sarcococca are conspicuous by the heady aromas that fill the air around the as the thin sunlight begins to warm their branches. Anything that is prepared to flower in these short dark and cold days must do its best to attract what few insects are around to do the vital work of pollination.