Roddy Llewellyn on Winter gardening
PUBLISHED: 09:44 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013
Think carefully about planning your planting to extend the season up until the first frosts, says Roddy Llewellyn
By the end of August I was seriously thinking about buying a boat which I was going to call Noah's Ark II. If, I said to myself, this rain doesn't stop, I will at least be able to row to safety, to dry land afforded by Brailes Hill, my local Mount Arrarat, a mile or two away.
But then a miracle happened in early September - the rain stopped and the sun came out! A few colourful butterflies made their first appearance this summer, roses did not brown the minute they opened, and people started to smile along with the flowers. I intend planting an olive in my sunniest, best drained part of the garden, a sprig of which may come in handy next year.
Tania and I moved to our new house in December last year. I never intended to start serious work on the garden until late summer as I have always maintained that you should live with a garden for about a year before you start making changes. After all, how can you possibly know where spring bulbs have been planted in mid-winter and how all those bare-twigged trees and shrubs are going to behave in summer?
My fork has not been out of my hand since the rains abated. Digging has been heavy work on wet, compacted ground, the first time I have managed to attack it since the builders left along with their heavy machines. As the tines plunge in I can hear the soil whispering thanks for allowing oxygen back into it. Unearthed spring bulbs were immediately replanted in clean ground and fat, white bindweed roots carefully placed into the bonfire bucket. Once a patch of ground was hand-cleaned I sprinkled it with ash from the bonfire, an efficacious (and free) source of potash, to encourage future inmates to flower all the more next season.
As I look around the garden in late summer I see that I am rewarded with several dollops of welcome colour, something that not every garden has to give. This is because its previous owners thought about planting for late summer/autumn colour to extend the season for as long as possible, right up until the first frosts. As things stand, the main stars of the border are reliably perennial Michaelmas Daisies of various hues, and Verbena bonariensis, with its splendid lilac-purple flowers on stems as tall as 2m/6ft, a plant that does not always survive the British winter because its natural habitat is Argentina and Brazil.
My plan is to collect further invaluable plants to cheer me as winter approaches every year. These will include Leucanthemella serotina, a native to S.E. Europe, whose (1.5m/5ft) tall stems burst out with a profusion of daisy-like, white, yellow-centred flowers in September. Because of its height this is a perfect subject for the back of the border. Towards the front I would choose Aster frikartii Monch with rich blue flowers, another Michaelmas daisy that became fashionable at about the same time as we entered the new Millennium and which has remained popular ever since. Helenium and Rudbeckia species are another good bet. They come in a wide range of reds, oranges and yellows, but do remember that their natural distribution is in North America where they are found growing in damp meadows. If you want to see a glorious example of a late-summer/autumn border you should go to West Dean Gardens in West Sussex, 5m N of Chichester on the A286 (Tel:01243 818210).
There are two plants commonly sold at garden centres that should be sold with a safety warning because of their extraordinary vigour. The first is Leyland cypress which, since its relatively recent introduction, has sparked off many a neighbourly feud, sometimes followed by court proceedings, the length and breadth of the country. The second is the Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschaunica) which had been planted to scramble over a trellis framework in my garden in order to hide the oil tank. In usual fashion it had smothered several shrubs and the entire roof of the building behind it. Oil tanks do need to be hidden away (if only to prevent their contents from being stolen these days) but I am not convinced that climbers are the answer. Why not make a beast into a beauty and front it with an attractive wooden screen? A faade of a faux summer house or shed with a pitched roof and finial and something like a gothic window, perhaps. This is how I intend hiding my oil tank from view.