The garden can look uninviting on wet winter days. Leaden skies and soggy grass are hardly appealing when you are looking out from a warm house. Here in England we’ve had our fair share of rain over the past couple of months; ditches are overflowing, roads are still flooded and any with gardens on low-lying or heavy ground are faced with water-logged soil. Midwinter rainfall has been exceptional but it is certainly not unusual to be faced with a rain-drenched garden at this time of year.
Elspeth’s excellent post on recovering your garden after flooding gave advice on what to do and what to avoid after extreme conditions. So I ventured out into my own garden to review the situation. It was one of those days where the rain wasn’t falling heavily, chilly and wet but bearable. The initial impressions were hardly colourful and arresting, but look closer; gardens can be quite beautiful in all weather conditions.
Water droplets hung like crystals along the fine twigs of acers, settling on buds along the dark stems. No bright sunshine to make them sparkle but the damp air kept them hanging and shining like gems. They are most visible on taller plants which bring them close to eye level. Once noticed I found myself seeking them out, taking care not to dislodge or disturb them.
Beneath the twiggy stems of shrubs and trees the first hellebores are putting on a brave display. I planted some new ones last year; varieties of Helleborus x ballardiae and Helleborus x ericsmithii. These have good foliage which adds to the planting in winter even without the presence of the flowers. Blooms are produced in structured clusters above the leaves: cream, bruised pink and shades of yellow-green. These could never be described as delicate, pretty blooms. They are proud early flowers that seem all the more beautiful wet from the rain.
In the country hedgerows the hazel, Corylus avellana is already hanging with golden catkins in some places. With us the catkins are still light tan, stiff and tight. A few warm days and hey will expand, relax and release their golden pollen. The red cobnut, Corylus avellana ‘Purpurea’ is in a similar state; however its red catkins are conspicuous on the branches and all the more beautiful for the enhancement of raindrops hanging from the end of the garnet catkins.
Close to the house I have the corkscrew hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ in a pot. I like this shrub grown in a container; it restricts its size and turns it into an interesting bonsai living sculpture in winter. The curled and twisted branches will soon be hanging with hazel catkins but for the moment they are still tightly packed and held at curious angles on the twigs.
The buds on willows are already swelling along the stems. Although my soil is usually well drained and dry we have a number of willows in the garden which we cut back hard in late winter to promote vigorous growth and those lovely straight wands that look so striking through winter and when their various felted catkins appear in early spring. The pussy willow, Salix caprea has been a familiar sight on flower stalls now for several weeks; it has become such a popular subject for winter floral decoration. In the wild and in gardens the stem colour varies, and the production of catkins. Select a good one and it makes an easy-to-grow strikingly architectural shrub for the winter garden.
Of course evergreen shrubs are the very visible highlights of the winter garden and their foliage is all the more beautiful on wet days. If you have ever taken photographs of evergreens with glossy foliage you will know that on bright sunny days they are virtually impossible to capture. The shiny foliage reflects the light and throws it back at you. On dull wet days their shiny is deeper and their definition greater. For me the dark, furrowed leaves of Viburnum davidii are quite beautiful whatever the weather conditions, but they are deeper and all the more dramatic when wet with rain.
Anything with waxy foliage is particularly beautiful when wet. The curious round leaves of Eucalyptus perenniana, the spinning gum are steely blue green and hang on to tiny beaded water droplets giving them a delicate frosted sheen. To maintain the round juvenile foliage I grow this eucalypt in a pot and cut it back hard every couple of years. The leaves completely surround the stem. It gets the name spinning gum from the old, leaves which never fall but stay loose on the stems when they die and spin in the wind.
Mosses love damp winter weather and I always feel sorry that gardeners hate them so much. Look closely at the leaves and the stems of moss on a damp winter day and it is one of the most beautiful plants in the garden. The colours are stunning; rich vibrant and so full of life. There is increasing interest in mosses and their conservation in gardens. Will this be a trend in the garden landscape in the future?
One thing is certain: on my sandy soil the ground will be even more lacking in nutrients after the winter than usual. Feeding will be even more important to replenish essential plant food as plants start into growth when the weather warms up.