I’m not sure exactly how it’s happened, but apparently, it’s December already. Across the garden we’re looking forward to setting ourselves up for the next year, with a few changes to make us a little more robust for 2021, just in case.
It does feel like we’ve managed to recover most things in the garden and have almost established a bit of normality as we make the annual journey through the hedge cutting. This year as with many of the last few we’ve stumped back several hedge lines, both in the Garden Rooms and around the wider garden. Consistency in hedge cutting and any topiary is key to success. Each year the process is getting more refined and this is backed up by more recording, but that’s not to say there isn’t still a good amount of head scratching and thoughtful gazing still involved at times. Sometimes decades of small inconsistencies can really add up. If these accumulate enough then the rather extreme looking stumping back can be the only option left, particularly when those inconsistencies equate to formal hedges being more than a metre out from where they should be. Though it can look brutal and it will take the yews a few years to recover there is something incredibly satisfying about the first cut once they have grown back out again. As soon as they reach that point and those terminal buds of the new leggy growth get lopped off the hedge quickly begins to thicken up and formality is restored.
The opposite approach is to let the hedges just grow out. Although we have a number of formal hedges in the gardens a lot of these are from much later plantings and don’t really represent the historic period of the gardens design that we are most interested in. Many of these hedges are in line to be removed at some point in the future so in the interim there is more value to them if they are allowed to grow out. This will make them more accessible to nesting birds and overwintering insects. This management change will also be coupled with allowing the grass lines either side to grow out, providing more protection and greater foraging opportunities for the communities that build up here. In the years leading up to the removal of these hedge lines planting will be improved in the surrounding areas to provide more scent, colour and shelter as well as including returning path networks to give greater accessibility to the gardens all year round.
Speaking of scent one of my absolute favourites is doing what it does best at this very moment. Chimonanthus praecox or wintersweet is the best winter scented shrub there is. Whilst there are many phenomenal winter flowering, scented shrubs, this is the only one that genuinely smells like winter. If you haven’t come across it before it’s a glorious mix of winter spices, the very best of your favourite mulled drink proliferating from an abundance of curious, translucent, waxy yellow flowers. I’d urge everyone to plant them, as they can be stooled to keep them in scale with your garden or allowed to grow out to fill the garden with scent each year. We even have one on the Italian Terrace stairs that is wall trained, so they are pretty malleable. I would say though, if you can plant them somewhere that they fade into the background in the summer that would be ideal. They’re not of particular interest the rest of the year. They can produce a curious looking fruit and have a slight yellowing in autumn, but the display in the depths of winter means that they earn every square centimetre of the garden that they take up.
I always remember Chimonanthus flowering in late January or early February. As I look out the window now, the sun is shining and it’s warming up towards 10 ºC, I’m not surprised to see that it’s pushing its flowering window a little. What I was surprised to see was Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ coming into flower already. It’s very reliable for February and can start to appear in January but is extra early this winter. It’s a classic looking Narcissus, very strong golden yellow on robust stems and is always a welcome dash of colour. They are quite sporadic in the South Front beds this year, probably on account of being left in from last year. I’m expecting we probably won’t see the bulk of the display for a few weeks yet, but until then these super eager arrivals are most welcome.
This is me signing off for 2020, the gardens team will be busy progressing the winter work list and maybe a few little extras over the next few weeks. Have a good Christmas and hopefully we’ll see lots of you when we’re allowed to re-open.