A phrase I read recently to describe this past year was that 2020 due to Covid has been a BASTARD YEAR , sums it up perfectly and God love anyone who has lost family or loved ones to the virus but good news for January 2021 with the roll out of the vaccine and hopefully we can all get our lives back on track again .
December is such a busy month with the festive preparations that it is hard to find time to spend in the garden but with the leaves all down it is a good month to examine the structure of the garden in it’s pared back shape and see where it can be improved . You also see the garden at it’s darkest and where it can be brightened up with good winter bark by adding the likes of silver birch and various dogwoods .
I was in the Lower Garden this afternoon in an area of the wood where there is normally a profusion of leaf and today with all the leaves gone it was still a beautiful area and from where I was standing within a few feet there was purple beech which has a great branch structure that you can see now in it’s bare state , there was variegated eleagnus , golden willows and even a giant heather just coming into bud and as always there were three or four silver birch , the darkish native variety not the snow white jacquemontii and the effect was natural and really nice and showcased our plan from the beginning here which was to plant equally for bold winter structure and colour as well as the exhuberant growth and greenness of Summer.
When I lived in the Seychelles for two years the garden plants were amazing and there was no “ season ” as we know it with shrubs flowering every six weeks throughout the year , a real Garden of Eden , so no need in the tropical climate there to plant for winter .
My career abroad wasn’t always blue skies as can be seen in the photo of both Snezana and I driving on a border road just outside Bihac in NW Bosnia in December 1996 .
In Ireland we have a stable of trees and shrubs for winter colour and without these our gardens would be a sorry place , drab , gloomy and depressive from November to March . In our garden here we rely on eleagnus , dog woods , bamboos and above all on silver birch to lighten the look .
This little guy I rescued from the cat , I held him in my hands for a while to warm him up and calm him after being literally rescued from the jaws of death , he didn’t fly away for ages and sat obligingly for this photo as a bonus .
I have always subscribed to the motto of the great English textile designer , William Morris , who in a lecture to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design in 1880 said “ if you want a golden rule that will fit everybody , this is it : Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful ” and I have modified it for the garden as ; have nothing in your garden that is not beautiful but more importantly does not give value all year round .
A shrub very much taken for granted is the eleagnus but in my view a really great if not the greatest evergreen foliage shrub which provides colour all year round and is particularly valuable at this time of year . Sun or shade it doesen’t matter with eleagnus but it doesen’t like wet conditions so keep it away from boggy ground and it is a really lovely plant in either a wild woodland garden or even in a formal or small garden where you can prune it to a compact shape . I grow three varieties and if you need a quick grower then go for eleagnus limelight which will romp away in all directions so trim back regularly if you need it in a controlled space . The varieties gilt edged and maculata are slow growing taking ten years to get to two metres and a word to the wise here as with all the variegated eleagnus you need to prune out the green shoots ruthlessly as the variegated eleagnus tries to revert and if you don’t prune out the green it will take over the entire shrub eventually … other than that the eleagnus is trouble free and a great addition and must have for any garden in my view. It has always been a mystery to me why the eleagnus never features on these annual lists “ ten best shrubs for your garden ” that gardening writers love , a steady eddie of a plant and while maybe not sexy in gardening terms , for me it is one of the three best shrubs you can have .
I have been gardening for over forty years and the ideas I started out with have changed and of course the trees and shrubs which I loved in the 1970’s have also changed . At this stage of my gardening experience I would love to be starting out again now as I would save myself a lot of trial and error and just go straight to the best choices however my gardening guru in the early days was one of the best as through the writings of Christopher Llyod especially his book in 1976 The Adventurous Gardener I learned everything I needed to know on the journey and through him I discovered the love of hostas and silver birch … and today they are still my top two go to in trees and plants .
For me a garden no matter how small can always do with a few more silver birch which is my favourite tree winter and summer and I am always looking for an excuse to plant another !
And an excuse we got this week when we moved a multi stemmed jacquemontii from it’s position in the front garden where it has been for the past five years in what should have been a good place for it to thrive but it never took off while one we planted at the same time about 20 metres away romped away and never looked back … the most asked question in gardening why did that one do so well and this one just survived ? Normally if a plant or tree is not doing well I allow it two seasons and then move it but with this one I really wanted a jaquemontii in that particular spot but finally I called time on it and as Peter Cullen was back with the digger to regravel some of the paths that have been churned up with the recent garden projects in November and December , we were able to whip it out with a good root ball and it goes into a new location on the bank of the newly enlarged water area in the Lower Garden. I plan to replace it with another tree not making much growth after two years , an acer griseum , the paperbark maple with nice leaves and a lovely peeling bark which hopefully will do better with the change of location also .
This month we used the digger to put the finishing touches to the new water area in the Lower Wood area by adding three huge rocks , one of which I positioned to act as a bench for a coffee break looking out over what will be a new planting of water side marginal plants .
I can only grow acers in the areas close to the house because of the deer that trawl through the lower garden area on a nightly basis and strip anything they consider delicious which unfortunately is all the decorative maples . The paperbark and snake bark maples are beautiful trees and worth having but they take about ten years to show properly until the trunk thickens up and I don’t grow them as space in the front garden is tight however I bought this paperbark maple in a sale two years ago , stuck it in a corner and now it will have a chance to spread itself properly in place of the silver birch .
Two plants much underrated in the gardening world are hellebores and bergenias and I have never understood this as both plants are in leaf all year and are tolerant of position , shade , sunlight or soil . The hellebore is a gorgeous foliage plant with the added bonus of long lasting flowers from January to April although most people grow it for the flowers and some even strip off the leaves leaving bare stems from December all the better to show off the flowers . I grow hellebores for the foliage first , preferring the silver leaf varieties and the flowers are just a bonus . Like hostas the breeders have gone crazy inventing new names each year and my purchase last week of five small hellebores are called silver dollar – smaller plants or plugs are better as they will quickly make up growth in a year and are half the price of a normal size pot , 4 euros each for these little beauties in Clonmel Garden Centre.
The Bergenia is a perennial with great big paddle leaves that gives low structure and interest all year round especially the variety elephant ears , dead easy to grow , not at all fussy and a nice flower although again the flower is incidental to me as I grow bergenias for their lovely green leathery leaves . It is also a great plant to take side shots from and they root and grow on with ease so that after a year or two you need never buy another Bergenia .
The best period of my working life was the fifteen years I spent in the Former Yugoslavia and even though it is 2006 since I last worked in Bosnia it’s people are always in my heart and each year with this blog I like to include a few words in Serbo – Croat to wish in the New Year !
Sretna Nova Godina from both of us !