Notes from the garden – A chance encounter

Wren and Wintersweet by E.Boardman

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom

from The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy
Looking down the snowy apple arch

Under the glowering sky my boots heavy with mud sunk into the sodden ground, relentlessly battered by days of rain. It was now noticeably colder and a biting breeze cut through the air carrying with it a solitary snowflake that settled on my coat. Silence descended as the sky suddenly filled with a flurry of white, only to be broken by the sound of a rustling from the bare branches of a small bush. A little wren was sheltering from the cold, it’s outline almost indiscernible against the tangle of branches, picking through the leaf litter and soil searching for insects, essential sustenance for the harsh winter. Amongst the calm of this scene I watched a battle of life and death unfold, repeated endlessly in every corner of the garden. We both stopped, each trying to decipher the other, in an instant it was gone again flitting through the garden, a crossing of two worlds in a fleeting moment. 

Variagated holly, Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’, dusted in snow with Lonicera nitida ‘Baggasen’s Gold’

As I am writing this, sheltering from the cold in front of the fire, the wind is howling down the old chimneys and through the old stonework. Outside the ground is hard as iron and unforgiving, lightly coated in the occasional flurry of snow. We have once again been subjected to unprecedented and unpredictable weather, a seemingly more common occurrence. Severe rain storms caused record levels of flooding, overflowing ageing drainage system and filling rivers beyond breaking point. The garden was running with water from old underground springs creating temporary waterways spewing from banks and filling the old stream that had long since run dry. We are lucky enough that the soil here in the main garden, despite being clay, is surprisingly well drained and will soon recover. However, the rain was soon followed by a thick layer of snow as the weather turned colder.

The low early morning winter sun cascades through the apple fence

In the modern age of barren fields, lined with the ghosts of grubbed up hedges and concreted landscapes, the garden can become a refuge from the winter storm. From the food provided by holly bushes that are descended upon every year by the visiting redwings that strip it bare, to the windfall apples devoured by blackbirds to the dense hedges that provide much needed shelter. The lockdowns have shown how gardens are an important refuge for us all. It is obvious to me that a garden without wildlife is empty of the joy of these chance encounters, especially in the darkness of a long winter. Seeing the little wren reminded me that, while a garden should provide joy for its owner, it should also have nature at its heart; a shared space which all who venture into it can benefit from. A garden full of wildlife is also a healthy one providing the gardener with a balance of natural pest control.  

The orchard in the snow, the windfalls long since eaten by the blackbirds.

Whilst the winter weather increases the struggles for garden wildlife, snow has the amazing ability to renew a landscape in an instance, turning the dirty and muddy browns of winter into a pure white blanket. I headed out just as a light dusting of snow had fallen to capture the changes in the garden.

Snow on Hamamelis/Witch Hazel
Hornbeam hedge dusted in snow

One of the latest projects that I have managed to make time for is to create a child safe fence around the pond. We wanted something that would be practical yet look unobtrusive.Along with my father in law I came up with the idea of recreating the ‘estate’ style of metal fencing by using using t section steel for the uprights and roundbar for the rails. As it is untreated this will form a natural rust colouration over time and blending in further with the surroundings.

The pond under a layer of snow surrounded by the new fence.

I was recently given a standard holly which was removed from a friends garden which has spurred me into rejigging a border and moving a spirea which has outgrown its space. This particular spirea (Nipponica ‘Snowmound’) forms long arching shoots that are clothed in small white flowers in late spring/early summer. However, in its current position near to a path, the shoots had to be cut back hard every year. Ideally it needs to be planted towards the back of a border or somewhere so it can form its natural and graceful arching mound shape. Winter is the best time to move a deciduous shrub while it is still in dormancy.

The Spirea ready for moving

When moving a large shrub you are always going to reduce the amount of root and therefore limit the amount of water and nutrient the plant can take up until it recovers. To counter this it is best to reduce the size of the plant to match a smaller root and provide it with less leaf to support and to remember to provide it with a good amount of water throughout the season. I will replant the shrub with some mycorrhizal fungi to aid the roots getting established as quickly as possible.

Every decision in the garden, whilst made for ourselves, always considers the impact on nature. If a tree is removed can it be replaced somewhere else with one that provides flowers, berries and shelter, if I mow the lawn to an aesthetically pleasing perfect green, can I leave a section to allow the clover, self heal and daisies to flower. Build a garden for yourself and for nature and we can all enjoy the chance encounters and joy that it brings to a garden.


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