This winter’s notable run of frosts has already marked this year as distinct from the mild run we’ve had of late. We have woken again and again to a glistening world where footfall comes with a crunch and the fields and hedges are unified by the white freeze. The frost has come with clear blue skies and, as the sun has crept over the folds in the land, the colours of winter have bled back in with the thaw of its extending fingers.
These are the days when I am pleased for the skeletons of the last growing season. This early into the winter most are still standing and those that will continue to do so are already showing their stamina. The bronze fennel is one of the best. It is already naturalising here, seeding around the rusty barns and even where last year’s bonfire saw them burn in the spring clear up. I have them at the front of the house with the twisted remains of the apricot evening primrose and they have been alive with birds. A flitting wren and robins rummaging around amongst their stems where the seed has fallen and great tits stripping the seed from the architecture of umbels.
In the new garden, where I am working around the old stock beds for now, I am grateful for the reminder that I must plan for these bare bones in its winter incarnation. I want it to be a place that is as fascinating and beautiful in its death throes – and whilst resting – as it is in summer. The volunteer sunflowers left from the garden’s previous chapter, and whose seeds are stripped by the birds, are also a prompt that the garden should be as much a feeding ground as a place to study the decay and drawing back of winter. Where the ground now lies fallow, waiting and empty we will have life and light and change as the skeletons age and bleach and topple towards spring.
The Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ that were standing until so very recently have already given way to the weather and lie strewn. I will remember their habit and plant them away from the path so that, when they do fall, their sheaves can be enjoyed akimbo. Their lack of endurance as skeletons can be forgiven if they are in association with plants that keep it together and stand for longer. A drift of the buff powder-puffs of Aster pyrenaeus ‘Lutetia’ or A. x herveyi with its seed now blown free to reveal their light-reflecting starry calyces. Another grass perhaps, such as the Panicums, to arrest the sun in their plumage. The aptly named P. ‘Cloud Nine’ is showing itself to be one of the best I have here, standing tall, the elegant foliage now the colour of straw and parchment, the seedheads large and open. Pale on a dry day, yellowed when it is damp.
Remarkable now, and noteworthy for being at its very best in the winter, is Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis. The Yunnan liquorice is perfectly hardy here and has taken well to our sunny slopes. I first saw it on an autumn visit to Piet Oudolf’s garden with my friend and gardener from the Millennium Forest, Midori. In typical fashion Piet offered us the seed and we both took a handful of the extraordinary pods. The following spring we sowed the seed, Midori in Hokkaido and me back here back in Somerset. The plants in Japan have struggled to attain stature, despite coming through a winter beneath an eiderdown of snow, but mine have soared to well over head height and have spawned further generations which I am now nurturing in the frame for the spring planting of the new garden.
Their skeletons have been almost immune to the winter. Last year we had to fell them in the spring and cut their glory short to make way for the new growth. The cinnamon-coloured stems, which in summer are clothed with fine, pinnate foliage, stand at over two metres. The seedpods, which are the end result of a pretty but rather insignificant clutch of lilac, pea-like flowers, are as good as any seedpod gets. The size of a hens egg, and like a spiny fir cone in appearance, they are covered in rust-brown hairs that are bristly to the touch and hold the hoar frost as though it was designed for their armature. I will march them through the new garden where they can shine in the cold months and provide us with a place that will celebrate this apparent down time.