November & December in the garden

An Instagram retrospective of November & December 2017

It’s new year’s eve, but I’ll leave the annual gardening retrospective for others. For me, that doesn’t feel right till winter’s done and sowing seeds can begin in earnest, and we’re not quite there yet, although the seed catalogues are beginning to look well-thumbed. But I’ve not yet had a chance to look back through November and December in the garden as seen through my Instagram feed, so I hope you’ll join me as I review the past couple of months.

More than half way through winter, and in truth it’s been a little changeable. No snow here in this part of Kent and, in spite of a bitingly cold spell at the beginning of December, we’re currently experiencing a fairly typical mild, damp and soggy end to the year. On the plus side, this makes spending time gardening rather more pleasant than the typical wintery conditions of my imagination.

Casting my mind back to the first days of November, autumn was languidly drawing itself out, seemingly in no particular hurry, which was just fine by me.

Plenty of time to enjoy planting some more cyclamen (C. cycilium, hederifolium and coum in this garden), and admiring the mature specimens alongside accidental sympathetic planting. If you can ever refer to what the natural world gets up to as ‘accidental’.

There was an appearance of the most iconic mushroom...

...and plenty of golden sunshine, at the beginning of the day... well as at the end. 

But even on the dull days, the autumn light revealed details in the garden that made you want to stand and stare.

We got to enjoy the very last of the dahlias, sometimes left to expire gracefully in the borders...

...and sometimes rescued, just in time, from the ravages of wind and rain.

As the temperatures began to drop, the great Bringing In of the Pelargoniums began. An event which always fills me with dread, as I’ve not got a great record for nursing tender plants through the winter. Everything is still crossed...

It's the leaves that are the scented bit on a scented pelargonium. In fact, on most of them, you could be forgiven for missing the small delicate flowers entirely. But having brought Pelargonium x fragrans into the house for winter, it's decided that now would be a grand time to start flowering with gusto, so we're being treated to an entirely unseasonal display, not that we're complaining. It's a good one for the hibernal kitchen window ledge – its spicy smell will soon be mingling with all those Christmassy scents wafting around. Can't help giving its leaves a little squeeze when I'm doing the washing up, I don't think it minds. 🌱 #mystoryoflight #peninpractice #olympusuk #tostandandstare #thisautumnlife #impressionsofautumn #fb

A post shared by Andrew O'Brien (@andrewtimothyob) on

The leaves seemed reluctant to fall this year, drawing out the annual task of shepherding them into bags and compost bins, there to break down in time to lovely crumbly soil conditioner. At the time, I thought this was a good thing, as it allowed me time to continue working in the beds, weeding and cutting back etc. But on balance, I don’t think it really made much difference to the position we’re in at the end of the year – everything that got needed to get done still got done (well, almost everything), but the variety in autumnal routine was welcome.

And just to break it up, there weren’t just leaves in the garden to photograph. 

One month before Christmas (time really flying now, must be age), Great Dixter held its Christmas Plant Fair – a great excuse to wander through the gardens just after they’ve closed for the winter, as well as making the most of all the wonderful crafts and nurseries who’ve turned up to make the event such a success. 

Back at home, I was pleased to discover a flower still on my chocolate cosmos...

...but inevitably, as the temperatures fall and the light levels fade, attention begins to turn increasingly to the indoor jungle.

And all the more suddenly, for its long, relaxed visit this year, autumn is on its way. 

December brings a slight frost, and a bleaker prospect. Hello winter. 

As ever, we counter the dark with green. 

And a touch of blood red makes its jewelled presence felt. Quite literally, prompting language more Anglo Saxon than horticulturally Latin.

Though its always worth noting that some initially prickly customers can be a little more mellow upon closer examination. 

I do get a bit jealous when other parts of the country get snow. In the full knowledge that really, it’s a huge pain, and can be dangerous, there’s still the childish wonder of the pristine white blanket across the countryside. But there’s no time to stop, not just yet anyway. 

Though I do allow myself a moment’s reflection while pruning a favourite shrub . 

I first met the purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) when I was freelancing for a design agency in Spitalfields in the early noughties. I'd grab a delicious curry for lunch from one of the stalls in the yet to be renovated market and take it, along with my Open University text books (studying Environmental Policy in an International Context – all about the importance of shared sovereignty and multi-national environmental agreements – oh, the irony) and go sit in a little garden area off Folgate Street, passing into the enclosed space by a marvellous shrub with large, plum-coloured, paddle-shaped leaves. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and I'm pruning a mature version – the eldest of three in this garden – in the full knowledge that to get the best show from the foliage, I need to cut it back reasonably hard now, albeit at the expense of the "smokey" flowers from which the bush gets its name (I can live without the flowers. It's quite a good hazy kind of effect if you want that sort of thing, but to be honest, I just want big purple leaves). The sap has a wonderful, slightly astringent scent – with the punchiness of bay, but with more spice – not unlike a walnut, come to think of it, though less heady. You have to sniff quite hard to get the cotinus scent, whereas walnut will hit you after a few minutes raking up the leaves. This particular shrub seems bomb proof – it has blown over, and carried on growing. Most recently, the landscapers managed to fell a birch onto one of the main branches, much to my annoyance, radically altering its shape – but I've no doubt even this will be taken in its stride. I haven't even mentioned the detail of its fissured, moss and lichen covered bark, dark brown with cinnamon splashes, almost like flaking rust in places. I'm not sure you could ask more from a shrub. 🌱✨ #mystoryoflight #peninpractice #olympusuk #tostandandstare #winter #fb #penepl7

A post shared by Andrew O'Brien (@andrewtimothyob) on

Suddenly, the temperature plummets, bringing with it clear skies and amazing sunrises. 

And before you know it, a key date in the gardener’s calendar arrives – the winter solstice, end of the darkening nights. The older I get, the more I begin to see this as the main event over these festive weeks, a true cause for celebration.

But then there’s Christmas, time of traditions (though none as old as Christmas would have you believe). For us, it’s historically been a day spent mostly chuntering away on motorways, so sparkly lights and the dear faces of family are a welcome treat. And of course, a kiss under the poo-on-a-stick.

I'd love to hear how the last two months of 2017 have been in your garden. Let me know on twitter, or in the comments below. And a happy new year to you and all you love – thank you for reading and supporting Gardens, Weeds & Words throughout 2017, please come back next year!