As we all know there is no "Winter" term at school but I have a 16 year old Japanese ward, Sky, who is at boarding school nearby and whose reports I read. So these have inspired me to decide that the garden and gardener need a report after three plus years (though I haven't had a report for about 40 years). Winter is a hard time to judge a garden but a good one. For me it should still have structure, texture, colour and, yes, scent.

Herewith the report - with interesting subjects, most of which I didn't study at school.

Design and engineering

The garden has a fair amount of hard landscaping and structures, for example: the low walls around my terrace for growing alpines; the huge iron arch parade for climbing roses, Wisteria Clematis and Lonicera (honeysuckle); another iron arch for the same; a pond with bridge and rockery area; and sculptures. On the plant side I have evergreens; dwarf conifers; and trees. I also have low evergreen edging to two of my beds (which I never guessed I would do so they are sort of a surprise to me too - but the beds that are bordered by paths seemed to need it). One edging is box (which needs cutting) and the other is Lonicera nitida Golden Glow. I also have three strategically placed box balls. No box blight so far but it is probably inevitable.

Interestingly I felt pressure to create such structure much more in this larger, flat, open garden (and this village) than I did in London where the garden was so much smaller and anyway hard fenced on three sides. This part of the world is full of really skilled gardeners and fabulous gardens small, large and seriously landed.

Looking at it now, I think it has mostly worked especially in certain places. It is now quite well structuredand, dare I say, almost formal near the house (as below).

 

I am still undecided as to whether it needs more structure toward the end. I think, on balance, I like the way that it loosens as it approaches the fields and the view of ancient oaks and woodland of our village dairy farm.

 

So: 7-8/10 for effort and achievement

Art and sensory perception

In flower right now we have scented and none scented plants. The scented ones are: a number of Sarcococca confusa plus a red budded version S. ‘Winter Gem’; Viburnum bodnatense ‘Dawn’ and V. tinus ‘Eve Price’; a Daphne bholua (more of which later); and my amazing Prunus mume ‘Beni-Chidori’ (below).

On the less or unscented side we have snowdrops, pink and white and speckled Hellebores, pink Prunus sub Autumnalis Rosea, a white Camelia, yellow Cornus officinalis in the veg bed and many different Rosemary, cascading and upright, displaying their fabulous pale blues (as below). So I think I am doing pretty well having flowers and scent in this season.

The Zen bed (above), with all its dwarf conifers, the huge evergreen Cistus Alan Fradd’, bright red rose hips plus sculptures is probably the best-looking bed in Winter. It is almost entirely evergreen with lots of different colours of green (from yellows through to almost black), so much texture etc.. I added green slate to it last year to help keep the weeds down and the Narcissi Tete a Tete and Primulae are proving strong enough to move the slates aside as they determine to rise up and flower in early Spring. The major failure is the Cytisus batandieri (pineapple tree) which is clearly hating it where it is and needs moving. I think/hope it simply needs more sun. It is still alive - just - but needs saving.

The small wall bed (above) which is opposite the Zen bed is the star Winter scented one because of the three sweetly smelling Sarcocca confusa which are in serious flower now - and I don't have to venture far from the kitchen to appreciate the scent. It also has a smaller, evergreen Cistus (C. dansereaui Decumbens), deciduous, purple flowered Daphne mezereum Rubra which, somewhat surprisingly, is doing well and will flower soon and then produce fruits, and a number of Hellebores. However, I think I dont like the basic (simple flowered) white Geraniums and the rather boring Aquilegia I planted as fillers early on and havent yet replaced. Winter term 8/10 (evergreen structure and scent). Overall 6/10. Could do better! Something fun to plan to improve on next year.

Indeed, without taking you through all the other borders and beds, my overall report for them on this subject is 6/10 for effort and achievement. The basics are there but more finessing and detailed work needed.

Cookery

I have just used my last home grown onion (sob), the tomatoes, beans and Bramley apples are long gone and I have to admit that the only things I am still cropping outside are rosemary, thyme, sage and bay, plus chillies in the greenhouse.

So, this deserves a dire Winter term report - and many more onions next year. Yes. I have discovered that I love growing onions! They are so easy from sets, they need almost no work (except protecting the young ones from cheeky blackbirds pulling them up for fun), I love deciding when to pull them and dry them (in the greenhouse) and then making them look beautiful by cutting and twisting their necks. They store well and they taste so much better than shop bought ones. These are onions that make you cry when you cut them – like they did in the old days. I am protected from this by my contact lenses but my Japanese ward can’t cut them without weeping copiously. I started two years ago with a mixed bag of white, red and brown sets from T&M. The white ones have been a little disappointingly small but the rest have been fabulous.

I love to cook and make dishes from everywhere in the world. I use hundreds of onions in a year so I have decided that, in my small veg garden space, on this soil, in my three raised beds, what grows best is onions. Thus I am going to devote most of my kitchen garden beds next year to onions. Well why not? Every single one will go to a good, “foody” cause. This year I have ordered Hercules, Hi-Tech and Red Baron. They’ll be going in as soon as I have weeded the beds and the weather improves.

So: 1/10 for Winter term I am afraid (because of slim pickings) but shows promise the rest of the year and must do more.

Economics and planning

As ever in Winter, I am now buying seeds for next season especially tomato, pepper and chili seeds for the greenhouse. I always grow Suncherry and Sungold cherry tomatoes (ab fab and really reliable), sometimes Piccolo, and I always experiment with one large, beef one. I havent found a good one yet. This year I am trying Country Taste F1 from Thompson & Morgan.

I try to economise by buying things as seed rather than as plug plants but I have found that my onion seed growing has been extremely unsuccessful and that the more expensive (but still cheap) onion "sets" are the answer and deliver a 100 per cent better return ie lots of wonderful onions v none.

I am also buying runner bean seeds because this is my favourite green vegetable. On the basis of grow what you want to eat I need lots of runner beans as well as onions. Wisley Magic, Firestorm, Enorma, Snowstorm and Moonlight have all done well here and, truth be told, I cant taste any difference between them when cooked. They are all delicious and are so easy to propagate. I also rather enjoy the whole process of creating the structure to accommodate them (seen behind the onions below). And, of course, the harvest is in the air, so not taking up too much ground - a "space economical" harvest.

And, to that end, I intend trying to grow next year's courgettes up a climber so that they take up less room. I have seen people doing this in magazines so surely I can do it do?

However, on the same basis, ie grow what you want to eat, my attempt last year to grow fennel (which I use often - in many fish and chicken dishes especially) seems to have failed disastrously. I dont know why. They were seeded in the raised beds but I think I put them in too late (after I harvested the onions) and weeds just took over.

I am also thinking of seeding salad crops between the onion sets. I am not sure if this is a good plan or not but I am going to give it a go.

So probably: 7/10 for effort but we await "achievement" results from her somewhat "experimental" approach later this year.

Languages: Dutch

Obviously the tulip photos above are last year's. They are of the same bed from different angles and at different times and show how the bed changed colour during March and April. Last year I dug up all 80 of them and stored them in a cold larder where, miraculously, the mice didn’t find them and they survived well. But I should admit that I only managed to get the bulbs back into the bed in late December, in a last minute, “essay crisis”, way. I am not worried. They should be fine. Late planting is supposed to help against a nasty disease and some are already beginning to show.

I have also bought about 30 more bulbs (Sanne, Minton Exotic, the famous Angelique, Orange Princess, and Abba’ – mostly all fragrant - plus five more Vaya Con Dios which, you might remember, was new last year and which I tried and loved). I bought these extras because I have cleared some self-seeded wild geraniums from some of the other beds and, until I find perennials to fill the gaps, the tulips will be fab.. It will also be interesting to see how much better, if at all, the new tulips perform over last years ones. I am told the bulbs peter out, so well see. Its one of my ongoing experiments.

So: 7/10 for effort but with a somewhat cavalier approach to the subject. Awaiting proof.

Languages: Latin

It would be wrong to have a garden report with languages and exclude Latin. As a child I was forced to study Latin because it used to be a required paper for Oxbridge admission. I was useless at it, got a D in my first O’Level attempt but then changed teacher, saw the light and finally achieved a B in my re-sit. Then, just as I was applying, Oxbridge decided it was no longer a requirement. I could have killed my parents at that point for all my years of struggling with Latin. However, ever since I became a plant lover and gardener (some 17 years ago now), I thank them almost every day for putting me through it. It is the language that means all of us, all over the world, can communicate our love of plants in. It usually tells us where they come from (so what conditions they need) and can tell us how large they'll be, what they look like (flowers and leaves), what they smell like and all other manor of things (even without a photo label). The only issue is the pronunciation – which we all seem to do differently and I have no real idea who is right.

I think I am pretty good at my Latin plant names (only because I learned about plants from my huge dictionary of them - my bible), so will award myself: 8/10 for written work – with oral “debatable”.

Languages: English

As above, I am working on my knowledge of our English names for plants but: could do better. 6/10

Orienteering

Ill admit now that the plant I have missed most since leaving my garden in London nearly four years ago is Daphne bholua Peter Smithers’ (above). Daphne hate being moved so he stayed to thrill my buyers and they tell me he is still enthralling them.

When I first bought him, some twelve years ago, he was a Sir but he seems to have lost his title recently. He would start coming into massively scented, pink clustered, flower on the North side of my swing seat in late November and would scent me through until March/April. It was amazing how many dry (albeit cold) mornings, afternoons and evenings I could find in Winter in London to wrap up in rugs and sit out on the swing seat opposite ther pond with a friend and a cup of tea, coffee or wine and Sir Peters unbelievable scent to heighten the experience. He is scented throughout day and night and adds enormously to the dark months of Winter. This type of Daphne (bholua) is now not easy to find in normal garden centres or even nurseries because they are so difficult and slow, thus costly, to propagate and grow on. Most commercial Daphne breeders cant be bothered so I had sort of given up on the idea of replacing him here.

However, as I was writing something similar for a local magazine and bemoaning his absence, I was suddenly inspired to track down another D. bholua Peter Smithers. And, thanks to the RHS nursery finder, I found him "relatively" nearby in a fabulous nursery deep in Somerset called Junkers.

I trekked cross country down the thinnest lanes (and even had to reverse about five miles for an East European lorry that had got lost on its satnav) and then, deep in the middle of nowhere between Wellington and Taunton, I found this amazing place specialising in Acers, unusual Daphnes, Cornus and others. Its not obvious and you are allowed in by timed invitation only.

I was able to buy a very well grown D. Peter Smithers (which was in fab condition, already about 1 metre tall and encouragingly already had a single flower on it at end November). It was probably the most expensive plant (excluding trees) I have ever bought and it is now planted close to a path (so I can smell it - I hope), on raised ground (they dont like being waterlogged), and where it will be somewhat shaded in the Summer (they dont like being overly exposed to sun). Fussy? Yes. Worth it? Yes, if it thrives. It has already opened more flowers so I hope it will survive. Daphnes are famous for simply dying on you and it has just had the toughest introduction to its new life with the recent winds and snow. My one in London clay thrived so my fingers are majorly crossed for this one.

By the way, the other recommended highly scented D. bholua is Jaqueline Postill’. She is much more widely available and you can even buy her from Waitrose, apparently. I might try her too if I find one.

So, at last, a 10/10 for effort and fingers crossed for the result.

Nature

 On the wildlife front things are thriving. I have toads and frogs by the pond and newts waking up in it. The prolific slug and snail communities also seem to be thriving - grrrrr.

 

Starlings, sparrows, wrens and collar doves are nesting (in the house and garden) and there are many regulars such as blackbirds, thrushes, robins and tits plus many visiting birds. For example, the goldfinches and redpolls are back (first below), as are the long-tailed tits (second below). 

And during the recent snow I have been visited by a glorious Fieldfare, a very colourful member of the thrush family I have never encountered before (sorry no photo). I have also seen a Redwing and huge Lapwing on the common outside the front of the house.

Something that’s making me especially happy in the "uncultivated" element of the garden is that I have some amazing mosses growing (one/some of which above). They are particularly beautiful after a frost, tiny as they are. There are lichens as well on the trees and fences. However, I have not yet got to grip with some of my nature. The weeds are everywhere. It is a constant battle. Brambles are throwing themselves in from neighbours' hedges to East and West and trying to root in my borders. The moment they touch the ground they "layer" and a new plant starts. And unwelcome grasses are coming in from everywhere, especially from the surrounding fields.

I now even have grass growing happily on one of one of my outside door mats as well as on the swing seat (above). It’s ridiculous and their control is never ending.

So 7/10. She shows promise but applies herself too selectively. Some areas need serious improvement - and the swing seat covers need replacing.

Head’s comments

Overall the structure and planting is working well but Rosie needs to apply herself more to individual beds to improve their planting, her vegetable growing (to lengthen her harvest) and to controlling the onset of nature (weeding). She is an enthusiastic and promising gardener but has been letting extra curricular activities (especially paid work and village commitments) get in the way of the work needed for tending - and blogging.

Ideas 8/10, effort 6/10, effect 7/10. Could do better and we hope for improvements this year.

Mea culpa, I’ve been very late getting the garden to bed this winter. Normally the first frosts hit the Dahlias around November and I dig them up (because they don’t over-winter well in my clay soil), dry them out in the greenhouse, and then store them in an old laundry basket in newspaper and straw in the shed.  I also plant any new daffodil and tulip bulbs in beds and pots and try to do this by December at the latest.

For a variety of exceptionally boring reasons, none of this happened in 2013. Luckily, we’ve only had one mild frost in SW London to date (though horrible rains and winds), so the dahlias were still not blackened by Christmas. As I left for a family holiday time in Worcestershire, I felt guilty......but not very. “It’s been mild” I told myself.

                                                    Dahlia tubers drying in the bubble-wrapped greenhouse

So, I have just come in having finally bubble-wrapped the greenhouse, dug up the Dahlias and planted the tulips. I’ve also re-done my North-facing front window pots (simple blue and lavender shades winter pansies) and kitchen window pot (Hellebore ‘Christmas Carol’ - which has lovely, large, white, upward-held flowers - with two variegated Japanese rushes, Acorus Ogon, whose light green and yellow colours contrast with the dark green leaves of the Hellebore). The Hellebore was very expensive (£10.99), hence only the one, but its large, open flowers sparkle at me through the kitchen window as I write and cheer me, so it was well worth it.

                                                   The Hellebore and rushes in the kitchen window pot

I bought some tulip bulbs months ago but most went mouldy in the shed so I just had two, more recent, packets left – one of orange doubles called ‘Chameleon’ (because apparently they turn red from orange) and one of the statuesque, dark purple ‘Queen of the Night’ given to me by my friend Victoria. Both had started sprouting in their bags in the shed but looked fine. I have planted them together, in two pots, (in John Innes No 2 compost with lots of gravel and a bit of multipurpose on top) in the hope that they will flourish despite being planted so late. I hadn’t planned it like this but, if they flower, they will provide a striking homage to the colour palette of the late, great Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter fame.

Which is a happy coincidence because I am now reading the new edition of the charming and informative “Dear Friend and Gardener”, the book of letters between him and Beth Chatto. For fear of losing an eye or two I can only read it when out of bed because it’s a hardback.  I've discovered I also need an Encyclopaedia of Plants at my side as I read so I know exactly what they are talking about. I thought I was pretty good for an amateur. I’m only a couple of chapters in but already I now know I know nothing!


I digress.

I have also just given "Marie Antoinette" a severe wig cut (ie hard pruned the roses Ghislaine de Feligonde and Phyllis Bide over the gated arch), and have yet to do the same to R. Graham Thomas and his covering of Clematis macropetala. I have also not yet swept up the fallen leaves. I anyway tend not to sweep them all, I only clear the paths, pond and major piles. In the flower beds I like the worms to pull the leaves down into the clay to add organic matter, even if it looks a bit unkempt for a few months. It’s amazing how quickly they disappear. They provide natural mulch, heat and protection for the soil and insects (so food for birds) and they protect hibernating frogs and toads under the shed. The only downside of this approach is that dog poo is much harder to spot! But the truth is the gravel area by the greenhouse and shed needs clearing of leaves so I shall do this when the rain stops.

                                             View from the end of the garden with the gate arch roses cut back

Talking of tulips (if you are following closely), the blog has just been found by a Dutch gardener and cook and her Tweet has brought lots of welcome new interest in the site from The Netherlands. As it happens I have family in Holland, indeed a have a real Dutch Uncle. My maternal aunt married a lovely, sailing Dutchman and I have two great Dutch cousins and extended family there. So, “dus van harte welkom om de nieuwe lezers en kijkers in Nederland” – though of course this is fairly unnecessary since you all speak impeccable English!

As you will have realised by now, this is a fairly ‘random’ blog with no video. My excuse is it’s winter and there’s not much happening in the garden yet, though there are a few plants in flower and the Daphne is now out again, scenting the air and keeping my spirits up. The birds are still around and feeding, the fish have disappeared to the bottom of the pond, and the frogs and toads are hibernating.

                                     Top from L to R: Abutilon 'Kentish Belle'; Cobea scandens; Sarcocca confusa
              Bottom from L to R: Jasminium nudiflorum; Chrysanthemum frutescens; Daphne bhuloa 'Sir Peter Smithers'

Apart from those of you in The Netherlands, I’d love to know where the rest of you are. Each blog gets between 600 and 3,000 hits so it would be great to know where you are living. We’ve still got a real problem with Google analytics on this site so it would be great if you could either leave a comment and tell me who and where you are (I promise to keep your details secret) or let me know via Twitter @RosiesBG or on Facebook at RosiesBackGarden. Many thanks and Happy New Year to you all.

 

Daphne has been my joy and sorrow this winter. She was a water Niaid supposedly, a great beauty sought by Apollo, a water spirit. December is transformed by Daphne in my garden as the six year old, evergreen, D. bholua ‘Sir Peter Smithers’ beside my swing seat once again comes into flower as the rain and snow falls. But as a water nymph she has failed. It’s now clear I have lost all the fish in my pond bar three to the heron. Clear in every way. The unfiltered pond is now crystal clear from the freezing temperatures. I can see every leaf or piece of gravel on the bottom as well as the pump, waterlily tuber, and each fish as it “hibernates” as low down as it can.