In this second week of the second lockdown of this dreadful pandemic, it can be hard to keep positive, especially in the dank and dreary weather of a typical British November. Last time round we were blessed with glorious weather, so at least we could get out and about in the garden or countryside. This time, even though the lockdown regulations aren’t quite as strict – schools and colleges are open, along with garden centres, parks and country estates, thank goodness, and people living alone are permitted to join a support bubble, so I’m allowed to see my elder son and family – the weather isn’t quite as auspicious and the longer nights mean that we’re stuck indoors from 4 in the afternoon even on the brightest of days.
At times like these, having something to look forward to is essential. Even though lockdown in England is set to end in early December, none of us can be confident that it won’t be extended, or that we won’t be subject to some other system of draconian tiers, bubbles or bans. Christmas, despite what the politicians keep saying, is looking as though it might be very different this year and being able to travel again is but a distant hope on the horizon… Many people’s livelihoods are currently threatened by the constant stop-start of lockdown life, so it’s hardly surprising that we’re all feeling down.
It may not offer all the answers, but gardening definitely helps when uncertainty reigns. We know that the garden will go to sleep over the winter now the glorious hues of the autumn leaf spectacle are drawing to a close. But equally certainly, we know it will wake up again in spring: there are already plump buds on my daphnes with promises of heady scent to come in the dark days of January and February. Some winter-flowering shrubs like Viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont (sadly not as scented as its counterpart Dawn) and the sweetly scented mahonias and eleagnus are already in flower.
Tidying up the flower beds on the odd fine day reminds us of these delights to come. I leave most spent seedheads and stalks in situ over the winter to provide food and hideaways for bugs and animals, but I do clear away hosta leaves that might otherwise rot down and allow slugs and snails to multiply. I’ve also taken the opportunity of the occasional sunny afternoon to relocate plants that have outgrown their space or seen better days. Only recently, I took out a leggy cistus that has given me a wonderful display for well over ten years near the front arch, but has now reached the end of the road. They are short-lived plants and I’ve been thinking for a while that it needed to go. In its place, I’ve planted a new rose I’ve had in a pot this year, one of the new Persian ‘Eyes’ series. This one is ‘Eyes for You’ (think Art Garfunkel) and is a relatively low-growing, semi-double creamy white with a pink centre: delightful and wonderfully floriferous, still flowering now in fact (although the picture below was back in August).
It’s amazing how much space removing one straggly plant can open up. I was also able to add a couple of day lilies (Hemerocallis) relocated from elsewhere in the garden where it has become too shady for them to thrive: Joan Senior (creamy white) and Burlesque (a very early buttermilk yellow with a deep purple throat). Another rose (Darcy Bussell, deep magenta-red) that really wasn’t enjoying its position on the hot sunny bank opposite my house was also shoehorned in – offering plenty of anticipation for next summer. This is an excellent time of year to move plants: you can see what you’re doing, the ground should still be warm and damp, and they’ll have ample time for their roots to establish before the growing season starts next spring.
I’ve also recently finished emptying my summer containers, despite the begonias still flowering bravely away, to make space for winter plantings of pansies and primulas with an understorey of bulbs: a real promise of spring glories to come. The very act of choosing them online or in the garden centres (where they are often half price at the moment, despite it being nowhere near too late to plant tulips!) is an act of faith and a reminder that spring will come round again and hopefully we’ll be closer to finding a way out of the woods by then.
This year, I ordered some tulips from Sarah Raven as I’ve done in the past: these were the fabulously OTT Copper Image which I bought for the first time and adored last year.
For the rest of my containers, a friend had discovered a wholesale bulb website Parkers Bulbs, where you can order large quantities of bulbs at much lower prices: more choice than the garden centres and a great deal cheaper besides. By pooling our order, we ended up with a fabulous selection of bulbs, although admittedly I probably didn’t spend any less than usual as it was hard to resist the huge selection on offer: that child in a sweetshop moment again…. On the upside, I should have twice as many tulips in my barrel containers than usual. I’ve experimented with the lasagne method of two deep layers of tulips, topped off with crocus and dwarf daffodils saved from previous years. I will also add seed-grown wallflowers when the weather allows me to being them back from the allotment, but they are still available in garden centres too if you haven’t sown your own.
For next year’s tulip spectacular I went for Belle Epoque (fabulously blowsy double cappuccino fading to softest pink and cream – usually very expensive, but much more reasonable wholesale), Antraciet (deepest dark red, also double), Dream Touch (another double – seems to be a theme this year – with deep burgundy petals edged with white, almost like a purple globe artichoke. I saw this on Sarah Raven’s Instagram feed this spring and fell in love with it), Orca (an old gold double this time), Pink Star (you’ve guessed it, yet another double, this time with showy pink, peony-like flowers and finally Elegant Lady, the only single in the pack this year, a lily-flowered tulip with cream and pink flowers. Just thinking about them makes me smile – definitely something to look forward to.