Gardening and The Time Paradox

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It’s a little while since I wrote a garden book review. Followers of my Instagram account may know that I am reading Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook month by month, and I won’t be ready to review this until I finish the year’s journey with her in December. I also have another gardening book on the go, one of Christopher Lloyd’s, and I’ll review that in due course too. In between reading these gardening books as well as fiction, I’ve now started my new garden design classes and have whole library shelves of delectable design books available to me: plenty to keep my eyes occupied. Meanwhile, another book I recently read gave me a great deal to think about. It’s not a gardening book, but it was so tempting to extrapolate its ideas to gardeners that I thought I’d write this post about it. The book is called The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time and was written by two psychologists of Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.

I first picked this book up in the hopes of finding an explanation of why I am late for everything. (I did find out, incidentally: I’m a ‘Present Hedonist’, forever too deeply immersed in the current moment to notice the clock). But far beyond that, the book described the many intriguing different ways we perceive time, and how our balance of past, present and future perspective drives everything we do. It describes how our view of the past (positive or negative) determines our contentment in the present, and has less to do with the magnitude of events in our past than our way of framing them. Our relationship with the present is just as important. Reminders to live ‘mindfully’ aren’t necessary for us ‘Present Hedonists’, who rarely forget to stop and smell the roses or sit and enjoy the garden. (We never get anything useful done, mind you, but at least we are less prone to chronic stress and its related diseases.) ‘Present Fatalists’ on the other hand, feel that their life is governed by external influences over which they have little or no control, a perspective that is linked to anxiety and depression. Then there are the ‘Futures’, people whose actions today are driven by anticipation of tomorrow’s gains. Futures are good at delayed gratification. They study for exams, they invest in their pensions, they are always on time for the train. They are the lawyers and accountants who make the world go round while the Presents are smelling the roses and forgetting to submit their tax returns. We all need a good balance between a Past-Positive, Present-Hedonistic, and Future perspective in order to lead a healthy and productive life. So what has this all got to do with gardening?

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There could hardly be a better pastime in which past, present and future are more intricately woven. Let me illustrate with a simple vignette. At the end of last month, I decided that my wildflower crates were past their best (they had never really got off the ground, to tell the truth), and I decided to replant them for winter. I pulled the remains of the wildflowers out, first snipping off anything that could be used for a vase. I walked over to the compost heap, took off the lid, had a good look inside first, and then threw the spent wildflowers in. Then I spent a good few minutes flicking the brandling worms off the side so they wouldn’t be squashed when I put the lid back on. Large ones first, then the smaller ones, then tapping the lid to knock any off the lip and into the bin. Some of them got stuck, and I scooped them off delightedly, squeamishly, with a forefinger, which I then wiped on my jeans. (Can you see why I’m late for everything?)

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I replaced some of the old soil in the crates with new compost, mixing it in with my bare hands, heedless of the dirt I was going to have to scrape out from under my fingernails later on in order to be hand-hygeine-presentable for my day job as a ‘Future’ at the hospital. I liked the smell of the compost and the way it felt. Time slipped like soil between my fingers as I searched for vine weevil grubs (none to be seen). Once the soil was prepared, I planted some snowdrop bulbs. My favourite flowers are snowdrops, and the thought of that first sighting of glaucous shoots in a dark January brings me great anticipation for the season ahead. With the pleasure of past winters always vivid in my mind, I took a large bag of snowdrop bulbs and divided them between the two crates, arranging them in an even pattern across the soil, pressing them in with my thumb. I’ve never planted snowdrops from dry bulbs in autumn before, and it will be five months before I see the results of this trial. I also planted some Narcissus ‘Minnow’ in the gaps between the snowdrops, having admired a picture of them in a magazine; it will be seven months before I see those in flower. To give me something to enjoy today and for the rest of the autumn, I topped the crates with generous pink and white Bellis daisies, bought at the garden centre in a present-oriented splurge. Memories of past enjoyment motivating me to take time over a pleasurable job in the present in order to reap future rewards. Little wonder gardening is therapy.

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People who have a tendency to live in the present are at a disadvantage in the Northern Hemisphere’s future-driven clock-time culture. On the other hand, you can hardly open a newspaper or social media site these days without seeing an article about how we should all be practising mindfulness and living more in the present. It’s getting the balance right that’s key, and I’m convinced gardening can help. Much has been written about gardening and mindfulness: how tilling the earth and being close to nature makes us slow down and experience the infinitesimal now. But what about gardening and a future perspective? Well, if anything could reorientate someone to a future perspective, it’s gardening. Practically every intervention in gardening is made with the future in mind. We plant bulbs in autumn so that we have flowers in spring. We sow seeds in February so that we have vegetables in June. When we plant a sapling, we are not thinking only of the benefit for ourselves, but of future generations, of people we may never know, who never knew we existeda transcendental future. Gardening teaches us about patience, consequences, delayed gratification, investment of time and effort. If education exists to turn Present-Hedonistic children (and adults) into well behaved Futures, then there’s no education like the experience of a dreary, tulip-less spring to galvanise a Present Hedonist into getting those bulbs planted in autumn. If I were a psychologist interested in the time perspectives of gardeners, I’d test the correlation between a Future orientation and a willingness to sow biennials.

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I would also test the correlation between enjoyment of weeding versus a Present or Future perspective. As a Present Hedonist, I adore weeding. Give me a hand fork and a podcast and I’ll happily pull creeping buttercups for hours. I enjoy the task itself much more than the result. Put a Future to the same task and they’ll get on with it too; but with merely the return on investment in mind they are likely to find it a mundane, if necessary chore. It’s the Present Fatalists who suffer most. With little consideration for any future return on their investment of time, and a sinking feeling that no matter how many weeds they pull they’ll never get them under control, weeding becomes a hated and seemingly pointless chore. Yet, gardening is a science, and reliable outcomes can be achieved through specific actions, so there could hardly be a better or more pleasurable way of engaging the Present Fatalist and showing them that this is one arena in which they can take control. To this group of people, who have often had the least control over their lives (through adverse social or economic circumstances, for example) and who suffer frequently from mental health disorders, gardening perhaps has the most to offer.

If you are interested in finding out about your own time perspective scores, you can test yourself on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.

Zimbardo, P and Boyd, J. (2008) The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time. First edition, London: Rider.

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Cambo Estate, Fife: a Festival of Snowdrops

I am of the opinion that a strongly held viewpoint should be put regularly to the test. A few weeks ago I boldly stated on Instagram that I would never spend two (and definitely not three) figures on a single Galanthus bulb. Committed galanthophile though I am, I remain perfectly content with the charms of lovely G. nivalis, the common snowdrop that crowds our British woods and hedgerows at this time of year. The people who commented on that post agreed: most were happy to buy ordinary snowdrops, especially if on sale. Either that, or no one was confessing to any extreme snowdrop splurges in public.

Nonetheless, questions and doubts remain in the back of my mind. There must be some reason that sane gardeners splash out relatively large quantities of money for snowdrop varieties that vary in often minute (read: undetectable) ways. What was it that I was missing? Rona Dodds, owner of Quercus Garden Plants, recently posted a piece on her Quirky Bird Gardener blog about the seven or so varieties that she grows, including a helpful photo of them side-by-side and crucially face-up. Arranged like this it was easy to see differences between them. One was chalice-shaped, another shaped like a stylish wind turbine. Inner splashes of green and yellow varied enormously, and double varieties threw a whole extra dimension into the mix. And yet, when we view snowdrops in the garden or in the wild, we don’t see them face up, we see them from above and often from a distance, tepals pointing downwards with all the inner intricacies hidden from sight. For me, the beauty of snowdrops has always been in their plurality. What could be more breathtaking than the sight of a woodland naturalised with those countless tiny white heads devoutly nodding together like a congregation praying for spring?

And so every year I go snowdrop hunting. Not just to the woods and fields close to Edinburgh, but also to gardens that showcase unusual varieties of snowdrops. I like to look at the different varieties on display and try to spot the differences. Some are easy to notice, others need a trained eye. I also like to look at the prices if varieties are on sale, and if I am with someone else I like to point the prices out to them and enjoy the ensuing debate. ‘What, £28 for a single bulb?’ my companion will inevitably gasp. ‘But it looks exactly like all the others.’ And so far I have not yet advanced far enough in my galanthophile training to counter their astonishment with a sturdy defence of the prices.

Only two special Galanthus varieties have ever stopped me in my tracks. One is G. ‘Primrose Warburg’ (£18 a bulb), a delightful little yellow variety, recognisably different from the common snowdrop to even the rookiest observer by its little yellow topnot (though I can’t distinguish it from G. ‘Wendy’s Gold’). The other is G. ‘Daphne’s Scissors’ (£8 a bulb) which has a sweet little pair of scissors marked on the inner segment. Both of these I saw first at Shepherd House Gardens and are still on my mind a year later.

Snowdrops are celebrated each winter during the snowdrop festival at the Cambo Estate in Fife, just across the water from Edinburgh. Cambo is home to the national snowdrop collection. As well as 300 special Galanthus varieties, their 70 acres of beautiful woodland is home to endless G. nivalis that wander as far as the eye can see. According to Cambo’s website, members of the Erskine family, who have lived and gardened at Cambo for generations, would spend hours digging, dividing and replanting the snowdrops across the woodlands in order to create the impressive colonies we see today. A couple of weekends ago I took my sister to Cambo with me to admire the naturalised woodland snowdrops and the fine collection of specials, and to have fun gasping at the prices of those on sale.

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The walled garden at Cambo

Before heading for the woodland walk, we took a quick tour around Cambo’s famous walled garden, with its naturalistic planting of grasses and tall perennials, its lovely glasshouse with stained glass panel, and its gentles slopes running down to the little brook that bumbles merrily through the middle, traversed by three pretty bridges. The walled garden had an air of dormancy, a sleeping beauty. I had some fun taking shots of the perennial seedheads that had been left standing to such good effect, and vowed to return in summer when it will be at its best.

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The glasshouse in the walled garden, with stained glass window
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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The walled garden slopes down to a brook
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The glasshouse in the walled garden
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Woodland snowdrops

The woodland snowdrop walk was everything it promised to be. Acres of venerable old trees had beneath them vast undisturbed expanses of snowdrops (I’m trying not to use the word ‘swathes’ but it’s hard). They grew thickly alongside the paths, down to the brook and away into the distance where they merged to give the impression of far off snow. In some places they were interspersed prettily with yellow Eranthis hyemalis, the winter aconite. The woodland path, satisfyingly mossy at the edges as most Scottish woodland paths are, ran down to the seaside about half a mile away, where children were clambering on the rocks and the landscape briefly joined forces with a golf course. The route circled on a lower streamside path back to the big house and the snowdrop collections.

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Cambo’s woodland snowdrop walk: the lower path wound alongside the brook
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The snowdrops were interspersed with winter aconites
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Sarcoscypha coccinea, the scarlet elf cup, a common native woodland fungus
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The woodland snowdrop walk
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Snowdrops and aconites: a classic combination
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Snowdrops and aconites beside the brook

Cambo’s display of special snowdrop varieties began in a long raised bed at the side of the house, and continued in the beds leading into and around the delightful little winter garden, filled with hellebores, iris, and fiery red dogwoods. Most were labelled (some labels were missing or unclear). In their close groupings, it was easy to see that some varieties were taller, or fatter, or more dainty than others; some had sharp, pointed tepals, others rounded. To choose a favourite would be impossible. These were not snowdrops to be naturalised in a corner of the garden; they were a true collection: to be possessed and categorised and labelled and displayed, part of their value being in their membership of the divisible whole. There is no point in owning just one or two specials. A collection by definition needs to contain as many varieties as possible, and it also needs to be expanding; there is no satisfaction in owning a static or dormant collection. Once a collector gives up his hunting and accumulating and sorting, he may as well sell the whole lot off.

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Special variety: Galanthus ‘Wasp’

Herein may lie the practical part of the truth for me. A collection consisting of just the one or two varieties I find genuinely interesting would be no collection at all if I didn’t foster the intention of adding further to it. I wouldn’t have the money or space for a large collection anyway, and since we’re unlikely to stay in this flat for the long haul, I’d only end up losing some of my precious bulbs if we moved. (Don’t tell me pots you know I’d forget to keep them moist for the other 9 months of the year.)

But there’s another, more abstract, part of the truth. It’s to do with two differing ways in which we humans observe and consider our environs. Some people are very interested in detail. They are the pointillists, the people who might buy a shirt not because it goes with anything else but because of the intricate pattern of tiny birds on the fabric, the people who follow a recipe to the very last gram or who notice every tiny bit of dirt missed by the cleaner. These are the collectors, the true Galanthophiles, the clever people who know their snowdrop markings well enough to spot a new hybrid popping up in the garden. But the other type of person is the painter of broad brush strokes, the person who is more interested in the overall impression, who has a sense of the bigger picture but forgets to notice the detail, or who would rather feel the pervading atmosphere than get down close with a magnifying glass. Not for us the tiny markings of special varieties. We just want our swathes.

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We just want our swathes
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Bright red Cornus (dogwood) in the winter garden with Bergenia and grasses.
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A red-stemmed Acer provides a striking focal point against a dark background in the winter garden
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Iris reticulata in the winter garden
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Hamamelis in the winter garden

This is not to say that I shan’t some day be persuaded to start my own special collection of Galanthus. Even as I write this and check the internet for my facts on prices and varieties, I feel my opinion changing as I stumble across pages with photos of unusual and beautiful snowdrops. Each year I will continue to take stock of my viewpoint by visiting places with fine collections of special snowdrops, and I already know which two varieties will be the first to make a dent in my pocket. But that won’t happen until I have a bigger garden, one with space for a collection worthy of the name, and one that I know I will be gardening in for the foreseeable future.

The Cambo Estate is at Kingsbarns near St Andrew’s in Fife, KY16 8QD. The Snowdrop Festival is on until 11th March and costs £5.50 per adult (children free).

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Simply snowdrops

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February has few attributes to recommend it, save its shortness and the occasional warm day towards the end of the month when spring really does feel as though it is coming upon us at last. Some of us might feel, come February, that winter has outstayed its welcome; but others, myself included, reckon that the years go by too quickly for us not to savour every moment, even the soggy, slushy, bitingly cold moments that February has to offer.

February has charms too, if you’re willing to look for them. They’re not hard to spot in the garden: the smart blades of daffodils, or the tiny pink buds of Chaenomeles trained against an old stone wall that shines wanly in the winter sunshine. Then of course are the snowdrops, just coming in to their own at this time of year. Cheap, easy to grow, willing to spread, simple, adorable snowdrops, clustering together sociably and unfolding their tepals in the warmth of that slanting February sun. For the snowdrops alone, I would not wish the short month of February to rush past any faster than it already does.

In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I recommend visiting her page to see what she and many other garden bloggers across the world have found to put in a vase today.

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The forgiveness of a garden

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I have been revising solidly for weeks. The weather has been most kind: too rainy to go for walks, too frozen to plant my new Sorbus cashmiriana, which has been waiting patiently in its pot, propped back against the wall with a sack of potting compost (or ‘growing media’, if the RHS insists.) Thanks to the weather, there has been almost no temptation to leave my desk for the entirety of January. I have been surrounded by piles of notes and endless labelled diagrams of plant cells and transverse sections of root, stem and dicotyledonous flowers for months, with the rain and snow lashing down and the garden ignored below a blanket of mud and leaves.

I am studying for the RHS Level 2 exams, and the first four exams are today. This semester’s topics have been Botany, Soil, Pests and Diseases, and Propagation, and I have wholeheartedly enjoyed each one, spellbound by the enthusiasm of our tutors, the arresting facts, and the ‘Oh, that’s why…’ revelations.

Yesterday I finally reached that blissful stage of revision I like to call the ‘Whatever will be will be’ stage, where you are reluctantly hopeful you can pass and you are ready to stop revising and just get it over. I looked up from the past-paper I had just completed, and saw through the window a fat ray of sunlight hitting our front garden, beckoning me to come and inspect the emerging shoots and buds of early spring. Having vowed to revise all day, guiltily I put down my pen, donned a coat and bobble hat, and wandered outside.

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The front garden was, at first glance, sparse of life. This was unsurprising, since during the autumn every single plant from the front garden was dug up, heeled in and replanted for the Great Maze Reshuffle (I promise to update you on the maze in due course). Similarly in the back garden, most of the refugees that no longer had a home in the front garden are still finding their (frozen) feet. It’s been a cold winter, colder than any I’ve yet experienced here in Edinburgh. Nonetheless, on closer inspection there were signs of spring everywhere. Green tips abounded: the beginnings of tulips, snowdrops, muscari, iris, alliums, crocosmia (rather too many of those) and some brave gladioli. Primroses and snowdrops were out in the window boxes, and tiny new shoots were appearing on the roses. In the front garden maze, my Iris ‘George’, which I divided and replanted beneath the cherry tree (also replanted) were up and almost out. In fact, two blooms had already made their showy attempts, only to be knocked down by rain, cat or other tragedy. I fetched scissors and rescued them, along with a snowdrop, a fading Helleborus niger flower, some variegated ivy and a sprig of wonderful smelling Sarcococca confusa that is flowering beautifully despite being heeled up in a temporary sack of earth.

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I was humbled by the forgiveness of a garden that, though bare earth six weeks ago, already offering up flowers for the house. Everywhere were signs of neglect, but I knew that the garden would keep on keeping on until I had time to pay it the attention it needed. A potted Skimmia japonica with raging chlorosis blooms relentlessly away in a corner. Seeds are as yet unplanted but they’ll catch up. That Sorbus will be just fine in its pot for one more week. And with any luck the weather will continue its kindness until next weekend so that I can enjoy my first gardening session of 2018 in fat rays of sunshine rather than snow and rain.

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In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and if you follow this link you can visit her page to see what this weekly challenge is all about, as well as find links to vases of flowers and foliage grown in the gardens of many other garden bloggers across the world.

Many of the photos on this blog post also appear on my Instagram page, where you will find a great deal more of my garden photography and regular tiny snippets of gardening life.

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Galanthophilia (and other charms of spring) at Shepherd House, Inveresk

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Are you a galanthophile? For me, a relatively new gardener, things could go either way: there’s still for me to develop the urge to collect rare, expensive snowdrop bulbs; or else galanthophilia may never take hold and I will be content to enjoy plain old G. nivalis dotting its pretty, native head around my borders for the rest of my life.

In fact, I am thrilled by any snowdrop, including nivalis, and I am not yet prepared to spend up to fifty pounds on a rare snowdrop that varies in tiny, almost indistinguishable ways. I say ‘not yet’, because it is just the sort of bandwagon I could see myself hopping on in later life.

Therefore it didn’t seem like too bad an idea to cultivate some prior knowledge by visiting a galanthophile’s garden, Shepherd House Garden, for their snowdrop weekend as part of the National Gardens Scheme. Shepherd House Gardens is a private garden of about one acre containing more than 70 different varieties of snowdrop, each one carefully labelled with name and distinguishing feature. [For a previous visit to Shepherd House Garden in early summer 2016, click here]

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I studiously and obediently observed the snowdrops, trying to distinguish the minute differences between them. Some were obvious straight away: the yellow of the aptly named ‘Primrose Warburg’, for example; others less so: I tried in vain to see the scissors of ‘Daphne’s Scissors’, lifting the delicate heads and peering inside to no avail. It was only when I got home and started processing my photos that the scissors suddenly jumped out at me.

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G. ‘Primrose Warburg’

But for many of the varieties, the name was just a name. I couldn’t understand what had caused someone to notice that a snowdrop seedling found in a garden was a different variety from those snowdrops that surrounded it. It would take an avid galanthophile, studying each snowdrop that appeared, to spot the differences. It made me wonder about all the new snowdrop varieties popping up in the gardens of non-galanthophiles that go unnoticed. I mean, could I be unwittingly harbouring any rare snowdrops among my plain ordinary nivalis? There is one patch of snowdrops down by my Sarcococca that is slightly taller and came out much earlier than their compatriotsIs it a new variety, or just nivalis doing better in a more advantageous environment? I would have to compare it with about 1000 other varieties, using a magnifying glass. And in the end, even if it were a new variety, would the tiny variations matter to anyone except a collector of names?

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I suppose these unappreciative questions mean that I am not, yet, a galanthophile, or possibly even one in the making. I am not much of a ‘details’ person, rather someone who appreciates the aesthetics of the bigger picture, a mass of snowdrops among winter aconites, or spreading under a tree whose leaves are bathed in pale sunlight, and in such idyllic vignettes the variety hardly matters, as long as the snowdrops spread wildly and enthusiastically.

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Elsewhere in the garden, spring was making herself known. Crocuses, anemones, hellebores and dwarf irises made well placed spots and carpets of colour. A crab-apple hedge was bright with red crab-apples against the blue fence posts, cheerful urns of violas made unexpected appearances in shady corners, and early white blossom stood out against an ochre wall.

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Shepherd House Garden remains one of my favourite retreats from the city. It maintains a feel of a private, family garden whilst elevating itself above the ordinary by the wit, art and imagination of its owners, the Frasers, who can usually be spied pottering about the garden among the visitors. It is open for charity at various times of year, as well as on Tuesdays and Thursdays during spring and early summer (see website for details of this year’s opening days).

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In The Garden: February

With this month’s warm and balmy temperatures, the garden has begun its slow explosion into green, starting of course with the snowdrops and dwarf irises, while narcissi and tulips line themselves up to begin their show next month. So, what is looking good in the garden this month?

Looking Good

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Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ in a vintage clay pot has come out to see the February sun.

 

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A surprise of crocuses, which I did not plant! I imagine they must have self-seeded from our nearby park, which is absolutely thick with the most beautiful displays.
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Helleborus argutifolus. I adore these subtle shades of lime and the soft rounded texture of the sepals.
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I planted a handful of ‘borrowed’ bulbs from our rented garden in 2015, and last year I divided and spread the clumps, so now this year at last the garden is starting to fill up. Nothing in the garden gives me greater joy to see at this time of year. I am not a galanthophile by any means: I am happy with old faithful G. nivalis. Perhaps one day I will splurge on some different varieties, but right now, these simple flowers couldn’t be making me happier.
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Electric blue Iris ‘Clairette’ saved over from last year’s pots.
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Another spring favourite of mine just coming into bloom. I have a white and a baby blue variety somewhere in the front garden and am awaiting their appearance with anticipation and hope.
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An enormous primrose taken as a seedling from my grandmother’s garden. It needs splitting.
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I am delighted to have spotted my first Anemone blanda, which I planted in autumn 2016 under the cherry tree.
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Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ making a surprise appearance at the back of the back garden. I ought to move these nearer the house as they were almost over by the time I spotted them in the distance through the rain-spattered window.

Jobs

  1. This is the month for sorting and sowing seeds. I stocked up on coir pellets (which I am using for the first time as an experiment) and washed out my seed trays and root trainers to ensure they were fresh and clean of any dirt that could have harboured disease from last year. I sorted my seeds into those that needed planting right away (sweet peas, Calendula, Cerinthe, Aquilegia, Nigella, Antirrhinum), those that could wait a month, and those that needed direct sowing. I had lots left over, which I packaged up to send to friends.
  2. It was a good month for mulching the beds with some left over horse manure, as well as some seaweed that I picked up on our recent walk on Tyninghame beach. I try to collect seaweed whenever I go to the beach (always the loose, dead stuff) as it is so wonderful to spread on the garden or to add to compost.
  3. Early spring is the time for pruning hydrangeas, clematis in groups 2 and 3, and certain other woody shrubs that flower later in the year. img_1902
  4. February is the last opportunity for clipping hedges before bird nesting season begins, after which it is necessary to wait until late July. Last year I had sparrows nesting in our privet hedge, so I took to them with hand shears instead of electric.
  5. Each year I grow a different variety of new potato in reusable deep sacks. I find it deeply satisfying earthing them up, watering them, and then tipping the bag out and finding all the new potatoes among the dark earth, even though our local greengrocer sells delicious new potatoes for far cheaper than I could ever manage to produce them. February is the time to ‘chit’ potatoes so I put mine in egg boxes by our french doors, where it is bright but not too warm.img_1901
  6. A general tidy-up was a satisfying way to spend a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, cutting back all the dead stalks and foliage for the compost heap to allow new growth to come through.
  7. Dividing perennials can begin this month if the ground isn’t frozen. I have my eye on a Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, some Bergenias and a Christmas rose that I would like to split so that I can increase my stock.

February Garden View

At last the front garden is beginning to green over with the fat shoots of bulbs growing in thick clumps all over the beds. Snowdrops are spreading beneath the roses and in small corners.

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The back garden too is changing: no snowdrops here, though I plan to spread some to this garden as soon as possible. However, many bulbs planted both this autumn and the previous one are making bold appearances.

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So that is it for February, a joyful month in the garden as spring begins to break through and cheer us all up after a long winter. I am now thoroughly looking forward to March, when the first species tulips and narcissi will be bringing even more colour to the garden. What have you been enjoying about your garden in February, and what are you looking forward to seeing in March?

Finally, can you see a face in the photo below?

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Snowdrops in inkpots (and warm woollen mittens)

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It is a little known (alternative) fact that Maria von Trapp was a keen galanthophile and collector of small vintage objects, and that the unabridged version of ‘My Favourite Things’ included a line about Snowdrops in Inkpots. I bet you’ll be singing that in your head all day long now.

The snowdrops are on the cast iron mantelpiece underneath a print by Jo Aylward. The penguin is holding a fine country house and he has some topiary on his head. And topiary is my current absolute favourite gardening thing.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I recommend visiting her page to see what other garden bloggers around the world have found to put in vases today.

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In the Garden: January

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Hasn’t it been a confusing month! While gardeners in some parts of the country have complained of the bitter cold and the lateness of their bulbs, those in other parts have been basking in clement, agreeable, if not exactly seasonable, weather. Here in Edinburgh, I am not sure what to make of the alternating balmy days of 11 or 12 degrees, and the frozen days of one or two below zero. But my bulbs are appearing just as they should, with Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, already flowering in some of the more sheltered spots.

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Looking good

The mild days have brought on some unseasonable growth from all sorts of plants besides the bulbs. Here are the brand new leaves, good enough almost to eat, of my Acanthus mollis. (As you can see, these clement days have also brought out the molluscs from hibernation.)

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New buds are appearing on the honeysuckle beside the front door and the Hydrangea petiolaris:

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And the raindrops look especially becoming on new foliage of Aquilegia:

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The Scarcococca flowered briefly, and quickly produced its shining berries:

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And the seedheads of the hostas are providing elegant hidey-houses for overwintering insects:

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But the stars of the garden are the hellebores:

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Helleborus ‘Winter Bells’
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Helleborus argutifolius

Jobs

1)  I have no greenhouse, and there is no room in the cold frame for tender plants, so I have wrapped hessian protection around my potted pelargoniums and alstromeria to ward off the worst of the frosts.

2) To prevent blackspot, last year’s hellebore leaves can be cut back and composted, allowing the new buds to shine through.

3) Squirrels just love to nip off the buds of emerging bulbs, and I have already found buds of my Iris ‘George’ on the ground. I like to paint on an unappetising concoction of garlic and paprika or cayenne pepper (but not chilli pepper, which can be harmful to wildlife) to put the squirrels off.

4) With all of summer’s growth dead and gone, now is a wonderful time to assess the garden and make any architectural or structural adjustments. I am building an extension to the brick terrace at the back of the house, and thinking hard about which shrubs to add for winter interest and structure.

5) I do not keep the garden too tidy, as a scruffy garden is best for wildlife, and though the jury is out on tidying up dead leaves, I err on the side of messy and leave them where they lie. However, where they are lying too thickly or have formed a mat over new growth, it is good to tidy up the leaves, and any dead or rotting stems that are not providing winter interest.

6) Having tidied up the garden and planned the garden’s permanent structure, now is also an excellent time to order seed for the coming year and make a sowing plan. I have ordered cornflowers, ammi, and sweetpeas, and will start sowing in early to mid February.

7) This is almost the last chance to trim hedges before birds start nesting. In the UK, it is illegal to cut a hedge that might contain nesting birds, which is usually from early spring until mid to late summer.

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January garden view

The following photos show views of the front garden in mid-January, as the first bulbs were emerging from both ground and pots.

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And a view of the back garden, which is still something of a building site, so I have cropped in close!

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So that is it for January, and not a moment too soon, some might say. Things start ramping up in February, with snowdrops and irises in full bloom, and pots just bursting with emerging bulbs. Which jobs have you been getting up to in the garden this month, and what have been your favourite sights?

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First sight of bulbs

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The best thing about January is seeing the first green tips of bulbs appearing through the bare earth. I could spend hours crouching down, scanning for a sight of these precious tiny signs of the year ahead. It makes the hard work of planting them all even more worthwhile.

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Can you spot the bulb?

What with the short days and being so busy during December, this weekend was the first weekend I saw the garden in daylight. At first I could see only a handful of eager muscari (always the first to show, months before flowering). Where were my snowdrops? Had they been eaten? It took some time for my eyes to adjust, and then I started spotting them everywhere, their tiny white heads so desperate to open before half-way out of the ground.

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Snowdrops

My faithful Iris ‘George’ has also come up again, for the third year running. I wonder if they have multiplied?

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Iris ‘George’

Watching the first bulbs appear in January is just about my favourite gardening thing. What’s yours?

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End of Month View: February 2016

 

 

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For non-gardeners, the dark days of February have little to recommend them. But for the gardener, February can be as full of delights as any of the summer months. From our front window my spirits are lifted by clumps of nodding snowdrops, battalions of iris reticulata, a burst of native primroses and winter heather, primula wanda, cyclamen, hellebores, muscari and skimmia. Pushing their way through the soil are the promise of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Here come my delphiniums and the peonies I planted last summer. Things have survived the winter. Things are coming back. February is a positive, happy month for me.

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February is also a month for plentiful gardening tasks. My seed-sowing got under way this month. I also turned out my cold frame on a particularly sunny day and scrubbed down the interior of a year’s worth of grub and mould. I took the opportunity to inspect the inhabitants and revive anything drooping with fresh water. I turned the compost heap, pruned the roses and mulched everywhere with manure.

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February is also a time for planning. Which plants need moving? Where are the bare patches? As plants I’d forgotten I owned start to reappear, I am reminded of niggles from last year: lysemichia too close to a rose, a salvia half-buried by a fern. I also have a deeper sense of dissatisfaction with the garden: too many little plants dotted about. It’s too fussy. I want swathes of things.

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Vita Sackville-West said, “I am sure that it is more effective to plant 12 tulips together rather than plant them in two groups of six.” Well, my garden is full of small divided groups, and VSW is right. It doesn’t look very good. When I look out of the window, I plan which plants I can move about to get the effect I am after.

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It’s hard to get a small garden looking great in February, but as I walk past the other front gardens of Edinburgh, the ones I like the best are without a doubt those with the most snowdrops. Though not a bona fide Galanthophile, I do think a garden should be full of snowdrops in February. As you can see from my pictures, my garden certainly does not fulfill this important criterion. The question is, do I have the patience to increase my crop using what I’ve already got, or do I blow £30 on importing some more?

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End of Month View is hosted by Helen at The Patient Gardener.

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