Finally, the winter is here. A cleansing frost that rose from the hollows and enveloped the garden in a unifying stillness. Colour held at bay where the freeze touched down, a red sky thrown from a late sunrise and then shadows elongating and revealing the humps, the bumps and the winter tussocks on the Tump.
It is a relief that the tender salvias and their persistence into December is at last curtailed. The dahlias are finally blackened and the place that the nasturtiums made for themselves so swiftly made absent. The inevitable snap is later than ever this year, and things had begun to feel uncomfortably out of kilter, but the sudden shift feels right and the letting go cathartic. Time for the garden to rest.
The change that occurs after the first deep frost is always immediate. The leaves that just last week were still clinging to the hazel are now down and amongst the leaf mould, the embryonic catkin now the point of focus in the branches. A growing season literally stripped and reduced to the bones and essentials.
A calm descends accordingly and for the first time in months it feels like there is time to look more deeply and to take stock. I draw up my winter job list as clarity arrives. What to leave and savour in the garden as it falls away slowly to reveal the skeletons and the plants that remain winter-green. A slow process of removing all that we need to will help to keep the composition on the right side of unkempt and allow the gentle opportunity of observation. To find the noses of the first bulbs appearing. The Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’ already in bud and the Cyclamen coum with their brilliant shock of pink look so much more cherished for making space around them.
The winter job list takes in some heavy tasks that only reveal themselves when the leaves are down. We fell a number of elms in the hedges that we’ve let grow out and which have reached their natural lifespan under the influence of the Dutch Elm Beetle. The trunks tend to be about 15cm in diameter when you see the foliage failing in the summer and that’s when we make a note of where they are. The timber makes good logs and the action of coppicing regenerates the growth again from the base.
In the same spirit, we will choose a mature hazel to stool for pea sticks and bean poles in the knowledge that cutting this side of winter keeps the energy in the roots and the wood sappy and pliable for longer. We note that the young hazel coppice I put in eight years ago will soon be mature enough to become part of the cycle, but not this year. Next year we will only coppice those that feel like they have the heft to regenerate. The cycle in itself is a good thing to be part of. The opening and closing of woodland and letting light to the floor and the change that results from such management. A flush of campion, the nettles that you thought you’d got on top of that come back and then provide forage for the butterflies to remind you it’s important to keep things dynamic.
The list runs roughly in chronological order. Planting as many woody plants as possible before January so that they can start to get their roots away – my ideal world. Strimming the ditch to reveal the silvery line of the stream before the primroses begin so that they are ready for action in February. Pruning the orchard and the soft fruit and cutting the hedges before the snowdrops emerge properly at their base. Mulching only in mild weather so as not to trap the frost in the ground. The compost heap charts our progress as it empties in readiness for the big cut back at the end of February.
Before you know it January is gone and it is only a month before things start moving again in the garden. The job list is a means of pinning down your thoughts and pacing your actions, but it is also important to build in the time to take stock, to look and to take the pause winter provides and enjoy it.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 10 December 2022