An early taste of winter

Friday, December 2, 2016

Suddenly after the most perfect October that could be imagined, a sharp taste of winter arrived with the turning of the calendar. Proper frosts, not the"chilly nights" that some annoying forecasters predict on the TV, usually accompanied by a grimacing of the face. But you learn to read the weather signals in your own area and it doesn't take a genius to conclude that, if there is a large High Pressure system centred to the north east of the UK, cloudless skies, no wind and a location in the middle of Wales in a sheltered valley, there is going to be a damaging frost.


The Paddock Garden a week later

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The great late colour show comes abruptly to an end and the stench of dead and dying foliage is evident all over the gardens the following morning.

The last remains of impatiens tinctoria which will die back to a huge tuber to overwinter.



 Most hydrangeas are highly susceptible to frost although the spent flower bracts make a strutural statement for several months and are particularly attractive when coated in hoar frost.



The final act just before the first proper frost arrives is to pick a bunch of the last flowers in bloom in the gardens.


A new phase of the gardening year begins, with the opportunity at last to cut back the borders, a final mow of the lawns and preparing all the heaters in the protected areas. Sad as it is to see the end to all the colours we have enjoyed for so long, it is a part of the rhythm of garden life and another range of tasks to occupy the dark days (and nights in my sad case!).




After the great deluge of 2015 which started at the beginning of November and lasted for at least a part of the following 77days, it was good to have  a wide variety of conditions to enjoy and some good dry spells to offset periods of heavy rain. The first "named" storm of the winter (why do they do this?) largely passed us by for a change, apart from some heavy rain. Sharp frosts at the beginning and end of the month. Rain on 12 days.  Low temperatures throughout with a min of -9C on 30th and 11 other days with a min below zero. Only 3 days above 10C max 12.4 on 14th.

The early arrival of frosts always brings to mind the old country lore saying that "Ice in November to hold a duck the rest of the winter will be slush and muck" Who knows if it will come true or not, but after a series of mild winters it would be good to have a "traditional" winter for  a change, especially if it means that we won't have "back and forward weather" in April and May which always damages early growth and sets back the advent of summer. Then right at the end of the month we did have ice on the pond (but not enough to hold a duck!) and some seriously low temperatures for late November and glorious "great to be alive" days, especially as one of them was my birthday! More of this would be welcome.

The Paddock Pond on 29th with the first ice. Note too the electric fence to keep the otters at bay.


 On the Carmarthenshire Fans 8 miles away, the first snow

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Garden update

Although growth has slowed down over much of the garden and cutting back and leaf blowing have become the main tasks, there were still a few brave flowering plants carrying on and some late leaf colour to enjoy.

Saxifraga cortusifolia with lovely dark and veined leaves and pale pink flowers with greatly elongated lower petals


 A taste of summer - a late sown eschsholzia. I always make 2 sowings directly into module trays, one to plant out in late May and another to plant out in July



Nearby in very well drained soil and full sun is  the perennial iberis "Betty Swainson"which often flowers well into December in all but the coldest weather.


 Physocarpus "Darts Gold" and an unknown liquidambar 


 Fatsia japonica flowering well before the severe frosts arrived which decimated the flowers. A large and impressive plant for shade.


Occasionally there are unexpected, pleasing surprises, and if the lawns have had a winter feed, green grass to lift the spirits amongst  all the gloom and decay.


 Nipponanthemum nipponicum, a chrysanthemum relative, is a succulent leaved, hardy sub shrub. This is the first time it has had a flower in the 7 years we have had the plant!


 The mother plant however in Chelsea Physic Garden, shown here,  flowering profusely in late autumn and probably into winter in a choice location in the middle of London. I am sucker for something different however challenging it may be!


 Chelsea Physic Garden is a wonderful historic garden in a sheltered location. Well laid out in botanic garden fashion, full of interest and enchantment - we loved it!




Vegetables especially brassicas, and root crops now in store, provide freshness to the dinner plate. Brussels sprouts are a stalwart and if early and late varieties are planted, a long season of picking is assured, from late September to late January if the weather isn't too severe. Plenty of new recipes to try out too!

The alien vegetable with grotesque swollen stems. Celeriac is now very fashionable and readily available. It is easy grow too provided it is sown in heat in the first couple of weeks of February, pricked out and potted into  7 or 9cm pots, then planted out when all risk of frost has passed


 Carrot "Purple Haze" is as attractive as it is tasty and cropped brilliantly with plenty to store.


Talking of recipes a new one for me was roasted kale (revered as a superfood but cheap as chips!) which can for my taste become rather  boring after a while. It is however transformed when chopped into small pieces, very lightly coated with olive oil to which sugar has been added, and salt and pepper, then roasted on a shallow tray for 4-5minutes at 180C. The nearest thing to deep fried Chinese "seaweed" we have ever tasted. It doesn't look or smell that great, but crunchy sweetness it is. Give it a try and play around with the quantaties to suit your indivdual tastes. I think you will agree it is incredibly moreish!


What's looking good?

Harder to find candidates now that the frosts have arrived but there are as always a few hardy souls doing their best to put on a show however small.

Roses are generally robust and some will flower well into December if the weather is kind. The best we have here is r. "Bonica" which is rarely without flowers. Look at all those buds in late November.


 Lettuce outdoors in late November is some achievement but needs substantial fleece protection on colder nights


Miscanthus seedheads and spent flowers of hydrangea paniculata "Limelight" make a charming  and long lived combination.



However the polytunnels are the place to be when it is cold or raining, with a host of plants to keep the spirits up. Worth all the cost of heating them when necessary to keep temperatures above 2C. In really cold spells this may need to be augmented by horticultural fleece over the more susceptible plants.

 Rather late for lilies to flower, but cold stored bulbs from H. W Hyde the lily specialists, planted in pots in early August putting on a tremendous, highly scented show. 

Lilium "Kushi Maya"  is  recent introduction, the result of a cross between species L. nepalense and a white l.oriental hybrid. 5 afeet tall and happy in sun or part shade it will normally flower in August.


 Another rare and unusual gem from Chelsea Physic Garden is fuchsia denticulata


 And one of my oldest tender plants is justicia carnea. a tender perennial/shrub which is the easiest thing from cuttings.



The parent of this salvia relative came to me in 1997 and countless generations later (another easy peasy plant from cuttings) plectranthus zuluensis  continues to delight everyone who sees it with wave upon wave of flowers almost  year round if kept under heated cover in winter and cut back after flowering. Plectranthus is a surprisingly large genus of plants from South Africa but I find many of them difficult to flower other than this old friend



Wildlife and countryside

After the excitement of bird life last month, it is trees that take centre stage with wonderful late autumn colour on our native trees with beech, wych elm, field maple and oak to the forefront.

 Wych elm with it's golden yellow foliage shines like a beacon in the company of another native trees


 Oak woodland our view due north is a feature of eastern Carmarthenshire and this year it took on such intense colours


 And driving from Stow on the Wold to Tewkesbury there were long avenues of beech for many miles.


It always about this time of year when otters start to make an appearance in the Paddock Pond as young adults look for new territory. We often lose a few fish before we realise it so I have taken the precaution of setting the electric fence to keep them at bay. It is only a deterent and one zap on the wire ensures they will look for rich pickings elsewhere in the River Ydw at the bottom of the garden.

In the Paddock pond and the nearby Koi pond, fish were seen through a veil of autumn


 Two golden rudd swimming amongst the autumn leaves reflected in the Paddock Pond


The sheep continue to graze safely in all the surrounding fields, almost all of the ewes in lamb, and the rams like all men, are taking things easy after all their exertions! Cattle in these parts have the refuge of barns in which to spend the winter and a lot more work for my neighbours.



Not usually a time of year we associate with garden visiting, but many public and National Trust gardens are open year round, attracting visitors with events such as Christmas fairs to keep the revenue coming in. Light shows are a growing phenomenum and a spectacular way to showcase the gardens and buildings.

One of the best in the UK must be at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire

Interior decorations were highly original and varied


A Christmas tree fashioned from books!




 A novel use for a billiard table


Lord Rothscild's private dining room with an amazing modern "chandelier" fashioned from broken china!





The wine cellars at Waddesdon hold some very old, rare and expensive wines presided over appropriately by Bacchus!


 And some very famous people are represented by specially signed bottles




 The light show in the gardens was breathtaking especially here with a foreground of large tree ferns protected for winter - more aliens!


 An ever changing colour pallette is projected onto the house throughout the evning


 The pink shade seemed totally unnatural -


 until walking back to the car we looked back to see a totally natural pink sky at dusk



Finally and on a sad note, I was deeply moved by the death of Leonard Cohen a few weeks ago. For nearly 50 years he had a been a companion and inspiration throughout my adult life. Alongside a wide range of classical music and radio3, I listened to him regularly on long shifts in the polytunnels. Posing questions on every aspect of the human condition and forcing the listener to reflect upon what he had to say, his poems and songs feature generosity, compassion, vulnerability, forgiveness, love, life and death. He published 14 CD's, the last of which was fittingly published just before his death aged 82. It was a great thrill to see him perform live in Cardiff on 2 occasions when he was well into his 70's. He put on a masterclass of how to deliver a concert, respecting his audience, the singers and musicians. Encore after encore followed, even at the age of 78 - what a man and what a memory.

It is difficult to choose one of all his many song to pay him a sad farewell, but one that comes nearest for me is"Alexandra Leaving."  Enter "leonard cohen singing alexandra leaving" into your search engine to listen to the song. Sorry but I couldn't get any of the direct links to work.  If you have never heard it you are in for a treat - but keep the Kleenex handy! As always the meaning is for you to unravel.