Jen's January

As it is sleeting heavily outside, this is definitely the perfect time to write my first entry for the Garden House website. First of all, I believe I should introduce myself. My name is Jennifer and I am the 2nd year Professional Gardener’s Guild trainee here at the Garden House. I have been here 5 months already and I can honestly say that everyone here has been so welcoming. Before coming here, I spent my first-year placement at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, what a complete contrast to here. Waddesdon Manor is a beautiful Victorian French renaissance style chateau in the middle of the English countryside with huge amounts of garish annual bedding. The contrast is stark and actually completely wonderful. I am not the only trainee here. We are the Jen’s, myself (Scottish Jen) and Cornish Jen. Cornish Jen was previously at the National Botanic Garden of Wales for 2 years and this is her last year on the scheme.

                                                                                             Figure 1: Galanthus plicatus 'Trimmer'

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It has been all about the snowdrops here at The Garden House recently. I am totally flabbergasted, in a good way, just how many there are. It has been such great fun finding out their names as they have been coming into flower. Some of them are just fantastic, ‘Grumpy’, ‘Mister Stinker’ and ‘Ermine Lace’ to name a few. As one of my colleagues put it “Why would a snowdrop be called Lace? There is absolutely nothing Lacy about snowdrops!” However! As snowdrops have been the main focus of this month. I decided to let you know about another January blossomer.

                                                                                          Figure 2: Clematis 'Winter Beauty'

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Clematis ‘Winter beauty’ is a winter flowering climbing perennial. Now I wasn’t on board with this plant at the beginning. It looked a little boring in the autumn when it was first pointed out to me but then after New year it began flowering with a bang! Today, it has definitely wormed its way onto my favourite winter plant list. It has gorgeous white flowers which nod down to the ground like a bell. The flowers aren’t scented but the plant makes up for this by being so floriferous.

Botanical name: Clematis urophylla ‘Winter Beauty’

Family: Ranunculaceae

Common names: Funnily enough, Clematis.

Where is it at the Garden House: We grow ‘Winter Beauty’ here against the tower in the walled garden. The stone provides the perfect backdrop to the white flowers. Growing it against a wall offers protection from cold east winds and a sunny position keeps the plant warm during winter. It isn’t the hardiest of Clematis but definitely worth a shot if you have a sheltered position in your garden which needs filling. To be honest with you, this is a plant I would make space for even if I didn’t have any left. With the winter weather, plants that flower at this time of year are a welcome site for us gardeners.

As gardeners, we work outside most days of the year unless the weather is completely atrocious and it isn’t worth slowly freezing to death. Then we come inside to thaw out. This time of year is cold, wet and grey but we still go outside. I am often asked by my friends, who have completely different careers such as engineering or film, what we would do in the winter because what could we possibly do? The plants aren’t growing and the weather is so cold. I think I have to explain what I do most of the time to them anyway but regardless there is still so much to do. Weeds never stop growing, they just get smaller and more annoying in winter, one day of warm weather in January and they are germinating all over the place.  This brings me nicely to what we have been doing this month here in the garden. To gardeners, January is the month for tidying up, cutting back any leftover herbaceous, mulching, pruning and project work. Oh, and planning out for the rest of the year.

January is perfect for tidying up borders by raking away leaves, weeding out any hard to reach plants in summer and reshaping any beds which have gone wonky over the summer. Our invaluable volunteers help us every day and we couldn’t do it without them.  Raking up leaves is a great way to do away with any slugs and snails which may be overwintering under the protection of fallen leaves. Plus, you can use leaves to make leaf mould which benefits your borders by adding essential nutrients such as phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen back into the soil. We don’t make leaf mould here at the moment but we do add them to our compost heap. The compost that we amass over the year is turned every few months to make sure everything is well rotted down and to contribute to aerobic composting. This basically just means adding oxygen into the heap. Oxygen contributes to aerobic composting by heating up the pile and speeding up the decay of plant material which means we can use our compost as a mulch on a yearly basis.

Figure 3: Mulching the terraces - before picture

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Just like leaf mould, using compost as a mulch on our borders gives back to the soil and creates a much better space for growing plants in. On top of this, thick layers of mulch help to suppress weeds, retain moisture during the hot summer months and protect the roots of plants during the cold winter months. I am personally a massive fan of mulching especially as gardeners we often cut back herbaceous growth and remove leaves. In nature, these would rot down where they are and feed the dormant plants for the following year. All plants, trees and food sources combined such as wheat, rely on this system to stay alive. This is the delicate balance of the eco-system that has been created over millennia, that as humans we begin to interfere with. Composting and mulching help to keep this balance on track. Constantly removing leaves from borders in our own gardens without replacing these nutrients somehow would eventually exhaust the soil and it would become so poor that nothing would grow. Thankfully, this takes a long time and can often be reversed with the right care.

Figure 4: Mulching the terraces - After picture

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One of the most asked questions here is “What type of mulch is it that you use in the Walled Garden?” Well… that is an easy one to answer. We use bracken mulch which is cut down locally. Bracken mulch - or Pteridium aquilinum - works in the same way as leaf mould and compost. The only difference is that is takes slightly longer to break down and when it does, the resulting compost is slightly more acidic. Bracken mulch is very good at supressing weeds and it is good to look at, these two points definitely puts in my favour.

In all of my textbooks and resource books, it states that Winter is the one of the best times to prune trees and shrubs. However, not all shrubs. As cutting back some early flowering plants would take all of their flowers off and you would be wondering in spring and summer why they aren’t flowering that year. It is always best, if you don’t know, to look up what you want to cut back before taking the proverbial plunge. I must admit, I don’t always do that but thankfully, I like to think I have amassed enough information over the last few years to make the decision quickly. Plants are pruned in the winter as the trees are sleeping. Being dormant, helps them to tolerate having limbs chopped off like having anaesthesia before going for an operation. In spring, summer and autumn, the life blood of trees flows through their vascular system so strongly that if cut at the wrong time will cause them to “bleed out” as the tree continues to try and feed that limb with energy. It isn’t as dramatic in most cases as it would be for humans but definitely best avoided. So far, I have spoken about tidying up, mulching and pruning. That just leaves project work.

Figure 5: At the beginning of the Waterfall construction

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This year’s “project” is our new waterfall! I have been tweeting about this on and off since the start of December. Since then we have made so much progress and it is looking fantastic. Our head gardener, Nick, and our gardens foreman, David, have been working their socks off to get this area ready for opening fully again in the spring. At the moment, this area is cordoned off as we are still moving stone around. The waterfall has been built at the bottom of the Acer glade with the hopes that it will be an unexpected and peaceful place to chance upon. I have to say, I am impressed how quickly it has all come together. It has been built with stone found around the site that has been dug up on previous occasions. 

Figure 6: Turning the waterfall on for the first time!

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Although it feels long winter only lasts for a few months and spring is just about within our sites. Early flowering daffodils and crocus are popping up all over the place and the fuzzy Magnolia flower buds are fattening up, readying themselves for spring. It will be warm again soon. I hope. For a Scottish woman, I am not that hardy.

As I am coming to the end of this post, having just remarked how spring is around the corner. The sleet has turned into snow and is now beginning to cover the ground with a thin white later. Oh joy. Make sure you stay warm! Until next time!

Figure 7: Daffodils flowering in the Long Walk

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