The next few weeks of darkness will be the toughest. Our circadian rhythm responding to the long nights. An alarm that rings whilst it is still dark and evenings that start sometime in the middle of the afternoon. The short days distil a refreshed awareness and I find myself pining for light when it is grey and uplifted when the skies are blue and the sun, tilted low, swings its lazy arc.
With dark prevailing the garden sinks into its deepest slumber and, for the first window in months it feels like there is time to take stock and in doing so, a responsibility to make the most of the daylight. This is when I write my winter job list, measuring out the few true weeks of dormancy against the jobs that can happen now and not when the growing season demands your attention. A carefully timed roster of tasks, one giving way to the next, responding to the weather and the gentle shifts in growth that happen despite it being winter.
We have already started by mulching the dahlias and tender salvias that are left in the ground to overwinter. We have also cleared the fallen poplar where it crashed across the snowdrop trail, because their spearing shoots are already visible. We move on in order of priority to cut the hedges alongside the garden as soon as the birds have taken the last of the berries and, when the weather is mild, forge on with winter planting and the very first of the clearances.
In the garden, and after last week’s frosts, we begin to see the first wave of growth being drawn back to earth. The luscious foliage of the daylilies has collapsed in just a week and the mulberry, already bare, reveals a domain that has been hidden for the summer. Its skirt of fallen foliage is already decomposing and under the leaf litter the bulbs that sit in the shadows will soon be showing growth. Without wading in, because there is beauty in this decay and we will leave the garden standing for winter, I plan my moves. They will be gentle for now, cutting back only those perennials that associate with the bulbs to do so whilst I can walk on the ground ahead of their shoots emerging.
The first clearances, which are a juggling act between one season and the next, make way for the new, but they are selective so that one can savour the spent growth. I have deliberately kept the bulbs to the skirts of the trees and shrubs in the garden, so that we can leave the perennials mostly standing. As much to witness the passage of winter in the garden as to leave it for the life it supports in its decline.
After the first frosts the light and the dark become most apparent. Baptisia blackened by last week’s cold to a slate grey particular to them. The tree peony foliage curled by frost so that it resembles wrought iron. When the weather is wet it is the deepest chestnut brown and hangs on tight until it is torn from the limbs in a gale. Later in the winter, when the noses of erythronium start to poke through, I will carefully remove the foliage that remains to let in the light. For now, we observe the garden drawing itself back and let it do so without too much intervention.
The black pokers of digitalis, the veronicastrum and agastache, which have already had their seed heads gathered by field mice, are never truly black. Made darker for the contrast of what surrounds them, they are best when emerging through the light-catching seedheads of grasses. The molinia in their last week or so of tawniness, never stand well after the frosts, but we have the room here to let them topple and watch them fade to the colour of parchment. The panicum by contrast will stand the duration of the winter as do the miscanthus, their plumage smoky in the wet and incandescent when holding our precious winter light.
I will be out in the garden daily to witness this decline and responding as and when I need to. Noting the new buds already formed under the burnished epimedium foliage and enjoying the glossiness of the wintergreen colchicums when they leaf out. Pulling a giant fennel that came down in a gale and finding that its removal keeps the garden on the right side of feeling neglected is often all that it will take. At its base, you can see it came down to make way for the emerging winter foliage which, like the autumn crocus and cyclamen, uses the winter to feed. Slowly, slowly and subject to what the winter throws at us, we will be left with last standings skeletons. Revealing all that they are made of and in no time at all the beginnings of new life at their feet.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 9 December 2023