January- Winter work and signs of Spring

Camellia japonica Akashigata

Signs of spring? Some. An icy menace waiting in the wings? Maybe. A good time to be out in the gardens at Dyffryn? Definitely!

We’ve started the year with curiously mild weather, mostly. Even on the days when your fingers and toes have gone numb, whilst you may not be convinced, look closely around the gardens and you’ll find a wealth of bulbs, flowering shrubs and brave herbaceous perennials opening up at the lightest touch of the warming winter sun.

Frost, soil and winter sun are the greatest of allies. When on a heavy clay like we are here at Dyffryn, the nightly freeze and daily thaw of water trapped in the soil helps to break up the clay. At this time of year whilst many of the beds in the Walled Gardens are emptied, the soil is worked by hand leaving ridges of clay lumps along the beds. Once the bed edges successfully pass for a Toblerone, the freeze/thaw action of the frost takes over. By creating these ridges, more of the clay lumps are exposed to the freezing conditions; meaning the weather will take care of some of the work for you, giving you more time elsewhere in the garden. By the time the spring is here the ridges will have slumped and the big lumps will have broken down allowing you to create a perfect tilth for all the planting and sowing you have planned through the rest of the season.

It is often the case that a clay soil will be lamented, but have faith. Owing to the structure of the clay particles it is fantastic at holding onto water and nutrients. The challenge is getting all the good things out. It takes a lot of work digging regularly and incorporating bulky organic matter, working the soil in the right conditions during the right season, promoting a healthy soil environment and growing crops whose root action will lend a helping hand. All of these things combined with a good dose of perseverance will give you fantastic results.

There are certainly spring-like signs around the garden, but actually many of these winter gems are just about right for this time of year. Snowdrops, winter aconites, the first camellias and an abundance of hellebores adorn many areas of the gardens. On a warm day follow your nose toward the citrus of Viburnum grandiflorum f. foetens oddly reminiscent of summer, the rich winter spiced, waxy yellow flowers of Chimonanthus praecox and the ever abundant honey-like odour of Sarcococca. Although it will be another couple of months before the bright spring bedding pops up, there really is an abundance of flower and scent in the garden at this time of year. It’s not always on the well-worn tracks so it’s certainly worth donning your boots and having a good explore of the garden in search of these winter beauties. Maybe grab a coffee to go? Definitely my favourite way to go plant hunting.

Enough about plant hunting, it’s time to get back to work. The hedge renovation that I mentioned in the last piece is well underway. The transformation around the Garden Rooms is clear, with infinitely more light and better views, whilst retaining the largely enclosed character of these areas. The hedges are around 20cm lower than their eventual height. This means that we won’t be cutting back into old wood each year, which can leave bare patches and not as sharp a finish.

As well as what we do as part of the latest revival phase of the garden, it’s also about how we do it. Hedges and edges form the backbone of many of the great gardens. The notion of the craftsman gardener is never more truly represented than when it comes to hedge work. Crisp lines so sharp you could almost cut a finger on them, perfect archways and every window identical to the last.
These are the things that we are working to get back to, this is the level of perfection that we must attain and these are one of the many elements that will come to define the gardens at Dyffryn.

Chris Flynn

Head Gardener, Dyffryn Gardens