Gardener's ramblings: December 2019

Anna Tolfree, Senior Gardener Anna Tolfree Senior Gardener
A dark green leaf displays different colours of spiky leaved holly and bright red, yellow and orange berries.
Published : 06 Dec 2019

As winter descends, Senior Gardener Anna Tolfree urges you to give nature a home and hold back from the traditional winter prune in her December blog.

‘The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown’

I’m always reminded of this carol at this time of year because I think it’s so true. In fact, even more so this year as the holly berries around the parkland and garden have been particularly good and are laden with bright red berries (Ilex aquifolium) and yellow berries (Ilex aquifolium ‘Bacciflava’) to name just two. 

Winter gardens still have bright colour with red berries on the Ilex aquifolium
Bright red round berries adorn a holly shrub bush
Winter gardens still have bright colour with red berries on the Ilex aquifolium

We have nine types of holly at Stowe and normally this would take many people a good few hours to locate them all. To make things little easier, we’ve chosen to display them all in one beautiful wreath made by Barry Smith – Head of Gardens and Estates, as part of our 12 Days of Christmas event. As many of you know at Christmas, we like to celebrate on a grand scale and this year is no exception. Discover 12 displays in the garden celebrating the Georgian tradition of the Twelfth Night with a final flourish at the Temple of Concord and Victory.

This year we’re very proud of the decorations that adorn the New Inn visitor centre and the garden as they’ve been sourced from the garden and parkland. This is all made possible because of autumn and winter pruning that the team do every year. Nothing is ever wasted and once the festive season is over, we collect up all the decorations and all the foliage is composted and turned into mulch ready to use in the garden next year.

All of the kissing boughs, festive foliage and Christmas tree for the New Inn were all home grown and sourced from the estate at Stowe
A dark green bushy trees stands up with gold fairy lights twinkling against an old building
All of the kissing boughs, festive foliage and Christmas tree for the New Inn were all home grown and sourced from the estate at Stowe

It’s a good time of year to be pruning most deciduous shrubs. Without the leaves you can really see the true form and structure which enables you to see how much it might need thinning out and if there any crossing branches that need to be removed. Some shrubs will be left like the lilacs and mock orange having benefitted from a prune earlier on in the year straight after flowering (they flower on the previous years growth so pruning now means you would be cutting off most of the flowering material for next year). 

Other shrubs that can be left are the evergreens – this is their real time to shine as they really stand out against the bare branches of many other shrubs.  Evergreens such as Viburnum tinus and strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) will produce beautiful displays of flowers and fruit which add to the visual contrast against the dark green leaves and prove that there is still a lot of colour around at this time of year if you know where to look for it.

The strawberry tree brightens up an autumn and winters day in the garden
A green leafed bush displays strawberry flowers in the winter
The strawberry tree brightens up an autumn and winters day in the garden

Herbaceous plants are normally cut down at this time of year in many gardens across the country but its worth thinking of the nature you have in your garden before you start. I admit that I used to love cutting back these dead plants and making it look ‘tidy’, it made me feel like I was putting the garden to bed for the winter until spring arrives before it starts to reawaken again. However, it’s worth noting that many native beneficial insects use a lot of this dead material to hibernate in over the cold winter months and by removing these we’re removing their safe havens.  

It’s becoming increasingly important to provide a place for them to shelter as many of these insects are vital against the attack of the unwanted pests that we have in our gardens today. It’s not just insects that use the dead foliage, birds too will be grateful of any seed heads that are left at this time of year as it’s a valuable food source for them in the colder months. There is something quite beautiful about a seed head in the garden that has a touch of frost on it. 

The frost brings back a new sense of life to the wildflowers that bloomed in the summer. Leave these be and let nature make mini-homes
Frost covers the seed heads of a gone over summer flower
The frost brings back a new sense of life to the wildflowers that bloomed in the summer. Leave these be and let nature make mini-homes

I know what I’ll be doing this winter, so with all this in mind I’m going to help my local bird and insect population which might also save me some time to put my feet up with a cup of tea and go through my new seed catalogue and start planning for next year…

The Temple of Friendship is lit by the sun across a frosty view of the Octagon Lake
Frost covers the ground with the sunrising across a lake with a large temple on the opposite side of the bank.
The Temple of Friendship is lit by the sun across a frosty view of the Octagon Lake

From all the team at Stowe, we’d like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If you want to work off your Christmas lunch, please join us on Boxing Day for a wonderful walk around the grounds at Stowe.

Happy Gardening.

Christmas preparations at New Inn, Stowe, Buckinghamshire

12 Days of Christmas at Stowe

Wow, what a Christmas we enjoyed in 2019! Visit our 'What's on' to see Christmas events planned the future. Read on to see how the 12 days project came about and the community and artist support developed the event.