As I write, the valley is unified by a deep freeze. Deep enough for the ground not to give underfoot and for the first time this winter an icy lens is thrown over the pond to blur its reflection. The farmers use this weather to tractor where they haven’t been able to for the mud. The thwack of post drivers echoes where repairs need to be made to the fences and slurry is spread on the fields that have for a while been inaccessible. It you are lucky, this is exactly the weather when you might get your manure delivery.
I welcome the freeze in the garden, for the last few weeks have been uncannily mild. Warm enough to push an occasional primrose and a smatter of violets. This year we have early hellebores, rising already from their basal rosettes and reminding me to cut away last year’s foliage so that the flowering stems can make a clean ascent. Good practice says to remove the leaves in December to diminish the risk of hellebore leaf spot. So far, whilst I have been nurturing young plants, I prefer to see the flowers pushing before I cut and know that the leaves have done all they can to charge the display.
As the garden matures it is already leaning on me to step in line where in its infancy I retained the upper hand in terms of control. I chose to wait until the end of February before doing the big cut back all in one go to allow as much as possible to run through the season without disturbance. Not so just five years on. I need to start engaging if I am not to make things more and not less labour intensive. It is all my own doing of course, because the more I add to the complexity of the garden, the earlier we have to start to be ready for spring. Where I have planted bulbs amongst the perennials for instance, the bulbs demand that I ready these areas to avoid snubbing their noses.
In terms of letting things be and allowing the garden to find its own balance, I want there to be a push and a pull between what really needs doing and where the natural processes can help me to tend the garden. The fallen leaf litter is already providing the mulch I need to protect the ground under the young trees, so it is in these areas I am concentrating the plants that need early attention. The hellebores and their associated bulbs can now push through the leaf litter. I no longer have need to mulch in these areas and save the annual trim to the hellebores and the shimmery Melica altissima ‘Alba’, the balance here is successfully struck.
We try to get our winter work, which tends to be bigger scale and mostly beyond the garden, all but done by the end of February. Our own fence and hedge work, tree planting and pruning. The ‘light touch’ beyond the garden will see us strim the length of the ditch before the snowdrops come up, but leave it standing for as long as possible where there are no bulbs. We come back on ourselves before the primroses start. Being further down the slope and colder, growth is later there, but the end of February date works. We leave the coppice beyond the ditch untouched, hitting the brambles every three or four years to curb their domain, because the coppice also needs time to establish without competition. Beyond that, and in the areas where we are letting the banks completely rewild, we watch the brambles spread and note how quickly the oaks that have been planted by the jays and squirrels, spring up amongst them. One day the shadow will put pressure on the brambles, which will fall in line and not be the dominating force. Watching what happens and applying your energies only to what is needed is a good reminder for what one should be doing as a gardener back in the cultivated domain.
The tussocky slopes that are too steep to cut on the hay meadows are a beautiful thing. They are very different as a habitat from the machine-managed sward that is kept in check by the hay cut, the grazing and the associated yellow rattle, which will only grow there where it is not outcompeted. The contrast of the tussocky land nearby with its peaks and troughs created by the grazing animals and not a combine provide a place where the rodents live and in turn where the owls and raptors come to feed. In summer you can look into these miniature landscapes and see the other world they offer for yourself. The cool side of a tussock and the warm side where the butterflies bask and the different webs or spiders that take advantage of the peaks and hollows of the undisturbed ground. From our own perspective as custodians and drivers of what happens here, the tussocky ground is a beautiful reminder. Catching the low winter light, its contours draw you to remember that it is good to touch down lightly where you can afford to and only apply your energies at the right time and in the right place.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 22 January 2022