A flash of winter light

I was trying to leave the house. I roved back and forth from room to room to recruit hat, gloves, rucksack, keys, coat, a large box of recycling to dispose of on my way up the street. Sometimes I have nightmares about not being able to leave the house, stuck in an endless gathering of things and keys and clothing. Anyway, on this day in my real, awake life, right at the point of triumph, just as I’d heaved the rucksack onto my back, the gloves onto my hands, the hat onto my head, the recycling into my arms, the keys in my hand, just as I thought that the wicked old universe had finally aligned its ambitions to mine, a sly slant of winter light flashed through the window and lit up an old metal jug that contained a spray of dried seedheads.

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Down went the recycling, the gloves, the keys, the ambition to leave on time. Winter light never stays long, and it never comes back to the same place again.

My camera was nearby (occasionally it pays to be untidy). Already the light started to fade. I took my pictures, and then watched the light disappear. In no time at all it had gone.

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I put down the camera. I retrieved keys, coat, gloves, recycling. I finally left the house.

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 globe have found to put in a vase today.

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My garden diary in 2018

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In autumn 2017 my aunt gave me a little notebook as a belated birthday present, and I decided I would use it to start keeping an ‘analogue’ garden diary. After all, my online ‘Edinburgh Garden Diary’ had been going for four years, and I had been inspired by various other garden bloggers who keep written diaries (such as Green Bench Ramblings) to keep a written record. To my surprise, writing in my notebook about the garden became a habit as effortless and enjoyable as making a cup of tea. I treasure the delicous moments when I pick up pen and notebook, settle into my seat on the garden bench, or pull a chair up to the window, and lose myself in thoughts about the garden. There’s always something to say, and the words flow easily. Now a year of my diary has passed and I enjoyed reading back through so much that I thought I would share some of my writing with you. I have edited it for brevity, though not for style. I hope you enjoy this little review of mine of a year in a small Scottish garden.

January

2.1.18 A good 90 minutes in the garden today. Very pleased to get my last bulbs in: Woodstock hyacinths in narrow terracotta pots with ‘Peppermint’ muscari, and the rest of the muscari in the maze. Rainy and a slow dusk. I was able to carry on until after 4pm. Buckets of ferns, primulas and hostas drowning in water, but the first day back at work tomorrow so nothing I can do.

7.1.18 Another severe frost of -4 last night, and today a bright blue, clear, freezing day. The clay pots of violas are troopers, blooming away regardless. Incredible things. Old dried flowers on the ‘Tess’ rose by the back door. I should have deadheaded them and pruned this rose in November, but I declined to… Each square brick in the path is rimmed with frost. I have topped up the bird feeder, and the birds are waiting for me to go indoors. The city is quiet. Birds sing in distant back greens.

27.1.18 I have managed a Saturday morning wander and noticed the purple tips of the iris ‘George’ spear, which may flower this week, new tips of returning tulips, and plenty of snowdrops. The snowdrops in my window boxes are in various stages, but the oldest had their petals open beautifully today.

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Old flowers on ‘Tess Of The D’Urbevilles’
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Snowdrops under a hedge at Humbie Kirk Woods, a few miles south of Edinburgh

February

11.2.18 A sparkling early spring weekend. Snowdrops in the hedgerows at Humbie Kirk Woods where L and I went for a deliciously squelchy walk today. Snow on the high ground, and bright blue skies, and sun slanting through the beech woods. I was surprised and gratified that my Clematis montana ‘Miss Christine’  has survived an undignified winter in an old compost bag. She is now planted under the arch and will no doubt make it look most pretty in the summer. To my horror, I found two New Zealand flatworms underneath an old sack near the compost heap. I have often wondered if we had them. Bulbs (including repeating tulips) popping up all over. Gave the roses and Hydrangea petiolaris a good mulch. Hope they will do wonders this summer in their new positions (the roses, that is).

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Brick tiles of the garden path rimmed with frost
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Birds in the snow

March

3.3.18 We are snowed under. I don’t have a garden anymore, just a white blanket with some twigs sticking out of it, and a few hungry, desperate birds sitting in trees, tweeting weakly. I have been feeding the poor birds, first with bird seed, and then when I ran out of that, muesli with the larger nuts taken out, and sesame seeds. They liked the muesli very much, but many sesame seeds were remaining on the path this morning when I had a look (pyjamas, snow boots, bobble hat). I also realised that besides having nothing to eat they would have nothing to drink, so put out two containers of water for them.

It has been light enough to step outside into the garden before work this week therapy. My ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ irises , a whole two clumps, a lovely surprise, are looking tip-top by the arch. [Drumstick] primulas are starting to form their rosettes, rising from deep down in the earth like slowly emerging sea monsters. The snowdrops in the front garden have been a most cheering sight, especially when all else looks bare, and a mess.

17.3.18 Another icy weather front moves in from the East. Will this winter last forever? Occasionally a flash of sun intercepts the snow, which has been falling languidly for most of the morning. Not serious snow, and there is no settling. I rushed out during one sunny spell to rescue some quince blossom, but couldn’t stay out for long, and there is little to stay outside for anyway. This time last year we already had forget-me-nots, but not a sign today. But I was happy to see that my Helleborus ‘Winter Bells’ is out of its sulk and producing new flowers…

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Erythronium ‘Joanna’
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Primula denticulata in the front garden
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Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in the front garden

April

22.4.18 The weather has been suddenly so wonderful for the past weeks that I have done immense things in the garden and it’s hard to keep up or remember everything that has happened. I’ll start by describing the wonderful things that are to be seen as I look out of the window.

Firstly the front garden: The snowdrops are well and truly over, and now we have Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in three generous clumps (a fourth less generous clump towards the back). The bigger clumps contain perhaps ten bulbs each, demonstrating how well ‘Thalia’ bulks up, and the effect is of course doubled as each head contains two flowers. . Complementing these in a perfect match are the lilac pompoms of Primular denticulata, another plant I could never get tired of. Towards the front, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is looking exceptionally pretty, and Erythronium ‘Joanna’ is underneath the cherry tree (‘Morello’) which is about to burst into blossom. (I was afraid it would have none given its maltreatment in December but I have seen the buds I do not deserve them!). My little Sorbus cashmiriana has come charmingly into fresh green leaf and flower buds are visible. The habit of the upturned branches is so uplifting … it is such a pretty tree that R noticed it and remarked upon it.

Not looking good: the Iris foetidissima… no fresh new leaves at all yet just sulking. I wonder if a feed would kill it or cure it. Also not looking good: the piles of topsoil, the piles bricks lying around, the big white sack of sub-base. The camellia needs moving … it is in the wrong place, but has two white buds that are promising to burst. Again, a dowsing with feed and water may help it decide to go ahead with this seemingly onerous task (everyone else’s camellias are almost over).

Now for the back garden. It is hard to see through the window for the enormous window box before my eyes, containing Primula vulgaris, Primula ‘Wanda’, and tall fat blue muscari. It has been my most successful w.b. yet, especially along with the snowdrops that started out in there. Such a scene it is! Anyway, the garden beyond, which had a big tidy-up, is looking pretty nice too as it springs into life. The most noticeable thing is the cerise P. denticulata. I also have some Tulipa ‘Purissima’ … Clematis ‘Miss Christine’ is coming cautiously to life by the arch. Under the roses, tulips, and all around are forget-me-nots, which I allow to spread at will because they are so useful and delightful. The Icelandic poppies I bought at Chatsworth have fat buds on them, and so does the geum at the front of the garden, but not the back geum. The delphs are looking bushy and fabulous, as are the foxgloves. The best thing is that the [white] peony has many buds on it. When I say many, I mean two so far, but that is many for me my first peonies! In four years!

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First peony!
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The back garden in spring

May

10.5.18 The tulips are in full bloom. Some ‘Belle Epoch’ popped up in the cutting patch along with numerous ‘Purissima’. Combined with Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ (or is it ‘Winston Churchill’?) and forget-me-nots it makes a very pretty jug for the dining room table. I have been ordering my perennials for the front garden. I am very excited to be getting such gorgeous plants for the front garden. The Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ is a real risk  I fear it may be too red rather than dusky purple. Time will tell. R and I have been enjoying a lot of rainbow chard, which is just beginning to bolt. The sweetpeas are in and the courgettes are germinating. Seeds need pricking out and plants potted on. Nematodes all watered in last week. I wonder if the positive effects on the plants have as much to do with the watering as the nematodes themselves, as I used litres.

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Icelandic poppy

July

5.7.18 The RHS exams and my college application took all my time and energy for most of May and June. It has been the hottest, driest summer we’ve had so far in Scotland. Beautiful days of no wind and temps in the mid-twenties for weeks. The garden is not looking too parched; it is Scotland after all. But things are worse down south. Now, thinking back to May, once the tulips finished there was a gap, and suddenly the geraniums sprang into being, as did the geums. The foxgloves emerged, and the roses (‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles’ always first). Then my delphiniums, all mixed in with the white and pink foxgloves, oh, and the best poppies, Icelandic bright orange with big creamy yellow centres, just keeping on and on all summer, and the perennial wallflower ‘Winter Orchid’. No bearded irises for me this year. I wonder what has got their goat? Two flowers on my peony ‘Avalanche’. The buds took weeks and weeks to develop and open up. It really was quite painful to watch. I am not sure I would plant peonies again. I don’t go crazy for them like other people seem to. My lovely Geranium pratense now there’s a plant that gives good value. Covered in bees, wafting elegantly in the breeze, it is gorgeous every year. I am thrilled to have masses of dill. Broad beans are doing marvellously and have been the easiest vegetable I have grown by far. Just stick ’em in the ground and stand back.

The front garden is so dry that nothing is settling in properly, and some things are looking quite sad. But I cannot water them very frequently it seems wrong when we are so short of rain to use tap water on the ground. One plant I am terribly pleased with is Luzula nivea such a lovely, soft white flower that complemented Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ quite brilliantly.

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Foxgloves in June

August

12.8.18 At last, the Scottish summer we are used to has arrived. Rain, temperatures in the low teens, a cold wind… all in time for the Festival as usual. But I don’t care. The weather can do what it likes we’ve had our hot summer and it was wonderful. Most of the plants survived pretty well regardless. I shall forever remember the summer days of 2018 spent on the terrace with a cup of tea, just looking at the tall, green plants. Now many of my favourites have gone over the foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, geums, wall flowers all stopped, and the far back corner is a green mess of not terribly attractive foliage. It is a corner that does very well in spring and summer, but not very pretty at all after July.  I spent a lot of time on that corner last autumn, but I think some more work is needed.

Looking really lovely at this time of the season are the following:

Echinops: covered in bees, beautiful purple-blue drumsticks.

Crocosmia: I always dismiss it rather, but it does perform superbly in late summer and it is so reliable

Persicaria: so reliable

Thalictrum: high clouds of purple dots love them!

Calendula and cerinthe

Cosmos ‘Purity’ hooray!

21.8.18 The signs of autumn are everywhere: dew on the grass, the first cotinus leaves turning that incredible burnished fiery copper colour, the whitening berries on the Sorbus cashmiriana. That tiny sorbus is just about my favourite thing in the garden at the moment. So small, neat and pert, its branches heavily laden with huge clusters of pale green, soon to be white, berries. They hang down like too-heavy earrings. I just adore this little tree. It has been a pleasure every day of the year so far. The ‘Limelight’ hydrangea is looking good in the far corner by the house. In full bloom with its green flowers, it is most elegant. In other people’s gardens these flowers turn white in the sun, but I prefer the subtle colours of mine, which stay green, then pinkish. The Luzula has turned brown, though I forgive it because it was the loveliest plant in June.

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The back garden in July
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Cosmos ‘Purity’

September

3.9.18 I am sitting by the back door, which is open, and looking on the wet garden, hearing the splatter of rain and feeling the cold breeze on my ankles and it is lifting my page as I write … I see the pale pink Japanese anemone I planted last week, along with Lizzie’s Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and behind the crocosmia (so I can’t see it but know it’s there) a small Ceratostigma plumbaginoides that is flowering a very pretty blue and will bring much needed colour to that far corner. The poor sunflowers are waving violently in the breeze, so heavy are they with their large, wet flowers on stalks that are too tall and dare I say, too spindly. I think I shall go and rescue those sunflowers. There, I have just brought in two perfect, large sunflower heads. They are a yellow merging with dark bronze and just the sort of colour I should hate but I love them they are so cheerful. High on my list of annuals I should continue to grow, along with Cosmos ‘Purity’, calendula, nasturtiums and this gorgeous, cloudy gypsophila.

30.9.18 Today a bright blue day, for the most part, and I seized upon the whim to move some plants around that had been annoying me. ‘You need to move plants a dozen times before you get the position right’, said Christopher Lloyd, and he’s right.  By the way, if ever there was an argument for cryogenic preservation, he would have been it. I’m most delighted to have got that camellia into the ground. And that the scrappy bases of the echinops will be hidden henceforth behind geranium, acanthus and peony. A good sweep of the patio and all is well with the world.

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Planting my bulbs in autumn
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My little Sorbus cashmiriana and its white berries. Next to it is a potted Cotinus ‘Dusky Maiden’, its leaves turning to a burnished copper

October

7.10.18 Some plants in the back garden feel as though they are winding down, while others are still soldiering on despite the lack of sun and the cold temperatures. The roses are doing fantastically, beautifully. Moving them was most certainly the right thing to do. I would love to attend a class on pruning my climbing roses correctly. When? How? (Those questions apply both to the task of pruning and to my ability to attend a class as I’ve failed to find one nearby and have no money anyway). My dahlias are suffering from a lack of light and water and probably nutrition too. I am seriously considering buying in a big sack of organic horse manure and mulching the entire garden front and back.

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Those Cotinus leaves again…

November

27.11.18 Multiple unavailable weekends have kept me from the garden, but at this time of year it hardly matters. The weeds don’t grow; nothing grows, except the mounds of leaves. At this time of year, every year, I ask myself, to leave the leaves on the ground (the beds, I mean) or to collect them? Collecting them would be neater, and I could make leaf mould. But they are protecting the soil in the absence of any mulch. Today I took the veg waste out to the compost in the darkening afternoon. I pulled out the cosmos, now just stalks, and the hollyhocks, which were quite annoying this year. A few weeds too. I cut some roses for the house as many buds were there, and put them in a jug with some nasturtium plants, leaves and roots but no flowers. This looks pretty good. The acanthus is back with a vengeance, all glossy-leaved and boisterous, too much for November. All the window boxes need sorting out, and my snowdrops and muscari need to be dealt with. The afternoons are so short that it is hard to do anything that takes more than half an hour, or jobs that lead on to other jobs.

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Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) in the front garden in December. Sadly enjoyed by slugs, so better viewed from afar.
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Old hydrangea flower catching the pale winter light of December

December

2.12.18 Everything is damp and rotting, except Geranium ‘Rozanne’, which flowers on and on. I like the damp, rotting part of the year. You feel in control. I like putting the rotting stuff on the compost heap, although I am treading the line between clearing and leaving habitats. There has been a lot of wildlife in the garden this year and I want it to keep increasing. Mulched ‘Shropshire’ and ‘Tess’ but the other roses still to mulch with the horse manure I brought back last week. First I have to tackle what’s beneath them dead leaves, far too many wallflowers etc. Need to tackle the delphs area and sort that clematis out. I have a frame for it, if I can get it fixed to that impossible wall. First bulbs already showing their tips under the cherry tree. Best sight in the world.

9.12.18 More bright blue winter skies, temps in the low single figures, and it is most definitely winter now. I shifted some pots around, which I hadn’t touched since last year’s bulbs. Miraculously the bulbs are reappearing already. I wonder if they will be any good this year. I think a judicious feed could save the day. I have ordered my mulch … I have learned my lesson from previous years. [The mulching] needs doing before the snowdrops make their appearance. I aim to apply it this week.

27.12.18 Mulch done! I would have chosen it to be less whiffy. It should really have no smell at all, but it is only being used as a mulch so I expect no harm will come (I will scream if all my snowdrops come up with nitrogen burns!). I am in Derbyshire now, but I am hoping for sightings on snowdrops when I come back. There was already a good clump of Iris ‘George’ visible before I left. My planting design needs a total overhaul in that front garden this is a place-marker for that intention.

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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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9 Ways I’ll Improve My Gardening in 2018

Happy new year! No, I’m not Chinese, but I have come to realise that I forgot to wish you all a happy new year at the beginning of January, partly because I was too wrapped up in revision for my RHS exams, and partly because I was in a rut with wanting to write a post about my gardening year in 2017, but didn’t know where to start. The reason I didn’t know where to start was because 2017 had mainly been characterised by not gardening, or at least, not enough, and that wasn’t going to make for very good reading. New Year, then January, slipped by in a flurry of snow and studying. Now that the exams are over, it’s far too late to start talking about 2017 (what a relief) so let’s move swiftly on and look ahead to this year. This year, my garden is going to be very beautiful, and here’s what I’m going to do differently this year in order to achieve this:

Be tidier (but not too tidy)

When I confess to you that my garden is a mess, I am not just talking about a few stray seed heads or the inevitable pile of plastic pots that all gardeners accumulate in dark corners behind sheds. My blind spots include: discarded plant labels lying on paths; empty plastic compost sacks blown into hedges; piles of topsoil that I have no idea what to do with; the four-foot stalks of last year’s Salvia ‘Amistad’ left on the terrace because there’s no room in the compost bin; empty seed trays collecting stagnant water; uprooted Everedge lying like dismantled bear-traps on the grass. When I wanted to find my root trainers to sow my sweetpeas, I had to scour the privet hedge for the inserts (I found all but one of them). None of this is beautiful to behold. But this year I will be tidier. I vow that I will be able to take photos of the garden from any direction without having to crop out the ugly parts. Conversely, it should hardly need pointing out that healthy gardens are not too tidy, nor heaven forbid, sterile. Gardens with wild areas, where nettles grow, and insects hibernate in old logs, and the seedheads are left on for the winter birds, are gardens with reverence for the ecosystems that make them what they are.

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Avoid plastic

You can’t have missed the current debate around plastic, unless you come from another planet, perhaps one that is not mad enough to have designed single-use items out of a material that lasts for ever. Plastic garden villains include: pots and trays, compost sacks, plant labels, polypropylene ‘fleece’ (a sad misnomer), netting, modules, plant supports, rabbit guards, bird feeders, the ‘lights’ of a cold frame, the protective packaging around plants sent by post, and even the plastic cover around gardening magazines and seed catalogues. As well as hanging around undegradable for hundreds of years, clogging up waterways and damaging wildlife, plastic is ugly, and gardens are for beauty; therefore, ought plastic to have a place in the garden? We gardened successfully for centuries before the invention of plastic; could we return to a life without it? The June 2017 issue of the RHS’s The Garden magazine (which arrived in its polythene wrapping) carried an article written by Sally Nex about her attempt to eliminate plastic from the garden, which inspired me to try doing the same. Like Sally I have started with wooden seed trays and terracotta pots as well as copper labels; I will report back with more ideas as they come.

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Improve winter structure

Eager to cram in as many delicious herbaceous perennials as one can discover, it’s easy to forget that for six months of the year the garden is essentially bare of herbaceous perennials. This is undoubtedly a lesson that many beginner gardeners learn to their cost as they gaze out at the garden of a frosty January day and see only the sad emptiness of a garden without bones. My experience in this regard has shown me that a garden ought to be designed primarily with the coldest months in mind — the gaps can always be filled in later. Luckily, it’s not too late for me to correct my early mistakes, and there’s a variety of ideas that I can add to my garden to get it looking good in winter: patterns of topiaried box and low hedging, arches, and neat edges along elegant or intriguing paths.

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Educate myself…

Well, I am already deep into this one, having followed my Certificate of Practical Horticulture straight into the RHS Principles of Horticulture Level 2 course. The improvement in my horticultural and botanical knowledge has been intensely satisfying — but talk about the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more to learn, and there always will be. I intend to carry on learning as much as I can, firstly by trying to attend further a further course once my current one is completed (I haven’t decided which yet), and by reading my steadily multiplying collection of gardening books as I go. Then there are gardening shows, magazines, the blogs of other gardeners …

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… And do things the proper way

When I do things the proper way, the way I have been taught on my various courses, taking care and paying attention to the small details — using the correct type of compost, labelling my seed trays, pruning each plant at the appropriate time in the appropriate way, and so on — the garden rewards my efforts with better-looking and happier plants, improved yields, healthier soil, more diverse wildlife: a better and more beautiful garden. I have noticed that since applying the techniques and skills that I have learnt on my practical horticulture course, my seed germination has become much more reliable, my cuttings root successfully, and I waste fewer plants by keeping them happy and healthy. A seed tray that has been filled and tamped properly and evenly sown with an appropriate quantity of seed not only germinates more successfully but looks good too. Sometimes doing things the proper way seems to take more time, but this time is often saved elsewhere later on.

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Try new seeds

Although I never get tired of my old favourites (Cosmos ‘Purity’, cornflowers, Ammi, ‘Café-au-Lait’ dahlias) it’s good to try new varieties and discover new favourites. Last year I successfully grew heartsease violas for the first time, cheerful little faces that kept my spirits up throughout autumn and winter. This year I’ll be trying sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Claret’ and ‘Double Dandy’), poached-egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii), Dill, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Sahara’, two new sorts of gypsophila, and two new dahlias, ‘Linda’s Baby’ and ‘Penhill Watermelon’.

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Protect my soil

A healthy garden begins with a healthy soil. Preventing the erosion and capping of topsoil by protecting it with mulches, ground-cover plants or green manures is one of the simplest things to be done to keep a garden healthy and beautiful. I started this year as I mean to go on, by mulching my herbaceous beds with heaps of delicious home-made compost. This will protect the surface of the soil and feed the soil organisms, providing nutrition for roots and organic matter for moisture retention. My raised beds are mulched with mushroom compost, which again protects the soil and provides organic matter and good weed suppression. But there are still areas needing improvement, places where I ran out of mulch, spots that have been neglected: an area of bare, compacted soil underneath some trees, patches that shouldn’t have been walked on (but were). Taking care of soil means being kind to earthworms too, and this will be of even more importance since last week’s discovery of two small New Zealand flatworms near my compost heap (a total scream-mask moment).

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Keep better records

Detesting plastic as I do, I’m not the best at labelling my plants. My record keeping is patchy at most, because it’s not easy to write things down on paper while wearing muddy gardening gloves, especially if it’s raining, and because I enjoy planting things spontaneously, grabbing the nearest suitable pot and kidding myself that I’ll remember what tulips I planted in six months’ time, an effect that is ruined by pernickerty record-keeping. And often a lovely surprise awaits: a terracotta jar of ‘Apricot Beauty’ suddenly appearing in April is no bad thing. And I can usually tell what my seedlings are by the leaves. However, records help us to learn from our successes and failures, and can be a pleasure to read back to oneself after a year or so. On top of blogging, I have started keeping a handwritten diary of the garden: what I tried that day, what I did, what was in leaf or flower or died or looked awful or sprang like Lazarus from the bare soil. What the weather was like, what birds were singing, what it felt like to be out in the garden on that cold morning.

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Just garden!

In the end, all these improvements will come about only if I step outside and actually garden. Life is very good at getting in the way: emails that need sending, laundry to attend to, husbands that want something (almost always involving having to stop whatever I’m doing to admire a piece of carbon-fibre cycling equipment). Then there are the excuses: weather awful, too cold, wrong sort of leaves on the ground, don’t know where to start. By prioritising gardening wherever possible I am hoping that the garden will respond in kind, and I have been inspired by Laetitia Maklouf’s ‘Five Minute Garden’ because there is so much you can do in five-minute bursts if that is all you have time for, and those seemingly insignificant bursts will eventually add up to a great deal of improvement.

So these are the things I will be doing better in 2018, in the hopes of a new, improved garden and a better gardening year over all. I’d love to know what you will be doing this year to make your garden a better place, or to hear about any changes you made in the past that had a fabulous impact on the health and beauty of your garden.

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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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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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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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Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

I used to work with a lady who said that all the time. I think she sort of meant, ‘anywaaaay’, or perhaps it was just her way of reserving space on the crowded verbal airwaves of our department.Garden plan

Anywaaaay… to say that I’ve been thinking incessantly about our new garden would not be hyperbole. I think about it when I go to sleep. I think about when I wake up. During my lunch break at work, when everyone else is chatting or reading magazines, I design garden layouts on quadrant paper. I spend my weekends hauling cement blocks to the tip, levering root boles out of the ground, hoisting soil and sand and gravel about, in short doing a lot of the type of gardening that constitutes hard labour rather than the pretty sort of gardening that involves dividing, cultivating, deadheading, and planting seeds. That’s why I’m not showing you any photos of the new garden today. It still looks like a building site.

I think about the new garden so much that I have been forgetting that ‘back at the ranch’ I have a perfectly good garden that is doing all the delightful things that gardens do in early spring. So this morning I went out with my camera to pay them homage.

My esteemed hellebore ‘Winter Moonbeam’ is coming into flower. I have cut back the old leathery leaves as one is supposed to do, to allow the new growth to shine forth in all its Neapolitan glory. IMG_0003I planted the hellebore in March 2014 and it has done pretty well in this corner. There are few advantages of having to stay in this flat for an extra few months while the renovation project goes on in the new flat, but one of them is that I may have time to divide this hellebore before we leave so that I can bring it with me.

Now, what on earth is this snapdragon doing out at this time of year? Is this normal? Yes, the garden is sheltered, but we’ve just had two weeks of a steady minus two degrees and there it goes still blooming away like it’s July. I’d like to divide this too, but I’m not sure that’s kosher for an antirrhinum (chime in if you know).

IMG_0005The crocuses are coming up. This north-east-facing front garden doesn’t get a lot of light at this time of year and I recall that last year these didn’t come out until a good few weeks after everyone else’s.

IMG_0006The snowdrops are coming out too, along with new shoots of the rather bossy Spanish bluebells that are simply everywhere in this garden.

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Here are more snowdrops together with a charming primrose (and more bossy Spanish bluebells). I have divided this primrose and potted it up for the new garden.

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The lobelia goes on and on, although it’s starting to look less sure of itself…

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And here is one of my drum primroses stalwartly surviving the cold. I divided and potted these up for the new garden too.

 

IMG_0018And the roses, which I brutally pruned in Autumn, are also coming freshly in to leaf.

IMG_0008The hydrangea is too.

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While watching it from a nearby window is a vaseful of its dried hydrangea flowers.

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And the Skimmia japonica ‘Fragrans’ is budding, although the only fragrans I could smell was the laundry powder on the sheets that a girl was hanging out on the back green washing line as I took the photos.

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Finally, tonight is Burns’ Night, so,

‘Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill o’ fare,

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware

That jaups in luggies;

But, if ye wish her gratefu’ pray’r

Gie her a Haggis!’