Under the icy surface of a frozen garden pond, plants and creatures adapt to survive winter's chill...
It is deepest winter, and the garden pond is buried beneath bleached ground. Sparse stems of robust plants jut through the pure white cover, as though reaching for warmer heights, their remaining leaves brittle and laced with frost. Settled snow hides the pool’s periphery, smoothing the edges as shoreline and surface are blended into uniformity.
The pond dozes through a seasonally imposed, cryogenic sleep. Aside the tracks of passing cats and birds pressed into the crisp covering, there is empty desolation. Yet still, life remains; it has just sunken. Below the surface, biological clocks tick and skeleton workforces continue to labour.
The upper levels are abandoned. As ponds cool, the life they contain relocates progressively deeper, an exodus from the surface ice to follow. Governing this are changes to the physical properties of water, brought about by the low temperatures. For aquatic life, these changes are essential for survival, as without them, the pond would freeze solid.
The main parameter altering the pond’s very dynamic is water density. Liquid water is most dense at 4°C. At temperatures below that, it thins again, until it solidifies as ice. This results in thermal stratification, where dense water sinks, and cooler water forms layers on top. This is partly why ice starts at the surface, instead of throughout.
For aquatic residents, the denser, warmer layer represents a safe oasis at the very limit of their temperature tolerance. This safety can be easily compromised. Depth is critical: if the pond is too shallow, then stratification will not occur. Small bodies of water, less than 35in (90cm) deep, can be hostile to even hardy life. Fish may need to be rehoused indoors while the worst of the season passes.
Fountains or circulation pumps can impact temperatures, mixing the various densities of water together and cooling them until ice starts to form at all depths. At a microscopic level, the pond becomes a semi-solid slurry, causing tiny frozen crystals to form within the tissues of plants and animals. The resulting physical damage can be lethal for anything using the pond as a home, as plant cells rupture, insect shells split, and gills and organs of fish are lacerated.
There are roughly three million manmade garden ponds in the UK. Many are a forced coexistence of native and imported flora and fauna. Among them, goldfish originating from East Asia rank as the country’s favourite alien inhabitants and for good reason. Their tolerance to temperature extremes helps them endure the wide fluctuations of a comparatively balmy British climate.
Wildlife that can avoid fish predation exploit garden pools in winter. Frogs and newts bury themselves in silt and slurry, part camouflage, part insulation, becoming dormant at 5°C. They remain so until the warmth returns, drawing oxygen from the water directly across their skin, known as cutaneous respiration, rather than inhaling atmospheric air.
Insects are found beneath the ice. Truly aquatic species, such as water boatmen and great diving beetles, are ill- adapted to living outside a body of water. They periodically roam the underside of the frozen sheet, seeking out bubbles of air. The young of some aquatic beetles overwinter in muddy ponds, living as larvae buried at the base. Others, in adult form, crawl out for drier refuge.
Crustaceans do not take a winter break. Many amphipods and isopods, such as woodlice, spend their whole lives among the substrate. They are leaf shredders, gnawing through food that has fallen into the pond, and mulching it into a fine detritus. The falling leaf bounty of autumn is sufficient to see them through long-drawn winters.
Microbes in the pond may still function at low temperatures. Some are even found after centuries of dormancy in harsh Arctic permafrost. Though activity levels are seriously compromised, they still use any available carbon, nitrogen and oxygen locked away in the pond’s waste, as well as oxygen in the water, to convert organic debris into a mixture of energy and effluvium.
The hermetically sealed box of a frozen pond presents a problem here. Bacteria feeding on debris produce carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulphide and a farrago of other noxious gases. With nowhere to escape, these gases accumulate, poisoning higher life. To avoid this, excess sediment must be removed with nets or aquatic vacuum cleaners before the winter sets in.
With the sun gone, plants divert energy from stem or leaf growth, focusing attention on their roots. By storing carbohydrates in their bulbs, roots or rhizomes, they have adequate reserves to subsist frugally until light returns and photosynthesis can resume. Water lilies stop any surface growth. New leaves will sprout in spring, and they are best left alone until then. Provided they have had a productive summer, they will return more strongly, year on year.
Many introduced plants, especially floating ones, stand little chance. Removing them to an indoor bucket may be their best hope for survival. Indigenous plants and those from northern climates, such as the spiky water soldier, will follow everything else to the bottom. Here, they adopt a submarine lifestyle until conditions improve. Where foliage has evolved this means of survival, it will adopt it without prompting.
Deeper oxygenating plants and algae stay minimally active. As long as some light can reach them, and carbon dioxide is available, they continue a lethargic photosynthesis, trickling out oxygen. Darkness forces them to respire, with plants dipping into their energy stores of sugar when the nuclear force of light is unavailable. This in turn causes them to produce carbon dioxide instead. In a smaller pond, this is avoided with the regular clearance of snow from its surface. Larger ponds will be too hazardous to stretch across.
Goldfish care in winter is easy: they are left alone without food. As cold-blooded creatures, unable to generate their own body heat, their metabolic rates are enslaved to water temperature. Feed rates need to be drastically reduced below 10°C, while sub-8°C digestion is entirely dormant. Feeding during a reprieve between cold snaps risks filling their bellies with indigestible fare when the temperature dips again. When snow and ice prevail, feeding is suspended.
Breaking surface ice to create breathing holes is often counterproductive. The pressure waves from any sudden impact are enough to shock fish, often to a lethal degree. Just as bad is the use of boiling water, which will cause acute damage to any life it meets as it mixes.
Floating pond heaters will help to the extent of clearing some surface ice, but do little beyond that. In the cold, oxygen travels approximately 2mm a day through static water. Given that pond life migrates to the bottom, it takes weeks or months for the gas to travel down that far. Breathing holes in ponds are superfluous, except where gases inside the pond need to be released. Unless excessive gas bubbles form on the underside of the ice sheet, or the pond is catastrophically overstocked, then holes are not essential.
Until spring’s thaw, it is wise to let the inhabitants of the pond continue to do what they have been successfully doing unaided for millions of years.
Words Nathan Hill
On a sunny day in October, a peaceful old orchard becomes a hive of activity. It is time to harvest the apples and pears weighing down the branches of the fruit trees at Hambrook House on the edge of the Cotswold Hills.
This four-acre walled garden produces a bumper crop of fruit every year, including many rare varieties. But some 20 years ago, it was a very different story, with the 300-year-old orchard overgrown and neglected.
“It was a wilderness of brambles, nettles and rubble, with a derelict hut and a roofless barn,” says Scott Carleton. He is the owner of the land, with Graeme Alexander. They bought the 17th century farmhouse 30 years ago. Then they discovered that the property had owned a neighbouring orchard for 200 years, until it was sold off after the Second World War.
Perched on a hillock in the orchard was a strange addition, a 30ft-high (9.1m) church steeple, sitting on top of a grassy mound. This had been erected by a previous owner of the house, the Rev John Pring, 150 years ago. It came from St Michael’s Church at nearby Winterbourne, where it was deemed unsafe after being struck by lightning. The Rev Pring had it dismantled and rebuilt in his orchard.
“There was no church to go with it,” says Scott. “Instead, a flight of steps in the mound led down to a door and a mysterious stone-walled chamber with the word Gerizim carved above it.” For many years this was generally thought to be a Georgian ice house. It is now believed to have been built as an apple store.
Graeme and Scott determined to buy the orchard back and return it to productivity. “We wanted to restore the house and its land as they had once been, as part of the history of the area,” says Scott. But two centuries of neglect were not easy to eradicate.
“Four or five cows which wandered round the orchard had made a path between clumps of bramble and coarse vegetation, such as thistles, dock and ragwort,” says Scott. “One of the bramble clumps concealed a car. Most of the others concealed agricultural equipment, including an old harrow and parts of carts, including huge wheels. On the positive side, it was a haven for wildlife.”
It was hard to tell that the approximately 50 remaining trees were even there, as there was considerable dead wood. Many were almost strangled by a crippling intrusion of ivy. “In some cases, there was only a few feet of growth at the very apex of the trees.
A disease called fire blight had ravaged them too,” recalls Scott.
The two men were keen to preserve as much wildlife as possible, while returning the land to being a thriving orchard. “We wanted to only gradually change an environment which clearly supported birds, bats, snakes and hedgehogs,” he says. “We were concerned about how much we would be affecting the food chain, so we decided to ask for help.”
Advice on planting and upkeep came from both South Gloucestershire County Council and specialists from the former Long Ashton research station (LARS). This agricultural and horticultural government research centre was created in 1903 to study and improve the West Country cider industry. It later expanded its work into fruit research, but closed in 2003.
Scott and Graeme consequently drew up a 10-year plan. “We commissioned two surveys from LARS, a year apart,” says Scott. “The first one was in September 1996, before we started work. A number of samples of fruit and leaves were taken to the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley in Surrey for identification. Most of the trees proved to be very tall pears, possibly dating back to 1853. There were some apple trees, but they tend not to live for more than 100 years, whereas pears can live up to 300 years.”
The couple were told they had a ‘Beurre Diel’ and nine
‘Dr Jules Guyot’ pears, and some possible ‘Wellington’ apple trees, also known as Dumelow’s Seedlings. “It’s actually not easy to identify fruit trees as there are variations even within a variety,” says Scott. “We had one expert telling us our pears were for perry-making and another who said they were culinary.”
The report advised against removing the dead wood wholesale. Insects feed on the dead wood and, in turn, provide food for birds. “It did say we should chop down any sizeable rotting branches in case they fell on anyone,” says Scott.
Clearing the land
It was suggested they begin by cutting paths with a mower to the individual trees and then a circle round them.
“The mowing was to be without a box so the grass cuttings could be left to feed the trees,” says Scott. “It was recommended that we gradually cleared all the existing overgrown material. The intervening areas between the trees should be allowed to grow annually to encourage wild flowers. It would then be cleared in the late summer or early autumn.”
They were advised to spread a good scattering of well-rotted farmyard manure evenly on the cleared area, at three ounces per square yard. If they did not have that, they could use a balanced fertiliser which is high in nitrogen and potash.
“We mowed where the five cows had meandered. Gradually over a decade, with some help, we cut down the coarse vegetation. The cuttings were left on site to rot down and become a habitat for creepy crawlies,” says Scott.
Once the trees could be accessed, the next step was to prune them. The dead and some of the living branches were removed to let in light and air.
Sadly, many of the trees were beyond saving and had to be taken out. However, they managed to keep 60 of both apple and pear. “We had a lovely time choosing our 40 or so new trees. These were mainly eating apples, because we were concerned new pear trees would get fire blight. We went for a combination of taste, historical association, disease-resistance and their names,” says Scott. “Who could resist such wonderful old-fashioned names like ‘Chorister Boy’, ‘Christmas Pearmain’ and ‘Gillyflower of Gloucester’? Then there is the ‘Leathercoat Russet’ mentioned by Shakespeare, the ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ dating back to around 1700 and the ‘Court Pendu Plat’. The latter was possibly grown by the Romans, who are said to have brought apples into Britain originally.
“We planted many of them in a traditional quincunx pattern of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its centre,” he says. This pattern of planting allows each tree to receive equal amounts of light. It also allows easier access for mowing, weed control and fruit collection.
“They came with mistletoe implanted in them. We have two pairs of mistle thrushes who nest here and dine lavishly on the mistle berries.”
Among the new trees are rarer varieties. These include one called ‘Berkeley Pippin’, which was thought to be extinct and is now on the critical list, and one ‘Golden Knob’.
“The reason some apples are rare is that they fell out of favour,” says Scott. “Either the flavour wasn’t as good as new varieties, or they were disease-prone, or didn’t crop well, bruised easily or looked ugly. We love the taste of ‘Berkeley Pippin’, which is a dessert apple, and our ‘Golden Knob’, but its apples are tiny and not good-looking. The tree is small and doesn’t crop every year, so it isn’t practical for commercial growers.”
The new apple trees were one-year-old maidens, and looked like twigs. However, these maidens establish better than large trees. “It felt a long wait but, at the end of the 10-year plan, we have a productive orchard,” says Scott.
The orchard is now mown four times a year to help the wildflowers, such as buttercups, dandelions, bugle and lady smocks, which already grew there. “We also planted yellow rattle, but it doesn’t appear to be growing,” says Scott. “The
soil is so good that coarse vegetation grows quickly and overwhelms the wildflowers.”
As the site was improved, more trees were planted, including cherries, plums, quinces, hazels, a sweet chestnut, and a mulberry. The orchard is now snowy with blossom each spring and heavy with fruit in the autumn.
“An orchard is always one of the most beautiful and tranquil places to be,” says Scott. “It looks its best in the autumn when the fruit is glowing in the trees. We often find fungi like waxcaps, puffballs, field mushrooms and bracket fungus on the orchard floor or on the trunks.”
Bottling the juice
“Most of the apples are sent off for juicing. A proportion of the crop goes to a couple of Bristol restaurants who want unusual local varieties, especially from an orchard run on organic lines,” he says. “We don’t produce many pears, as the old trees are past production and we have only a few young ones. What we have also goes for juicing.
“Our reward is a number of bottles of apple juice from the farmer. These we label ourselves and use on festive occasions. A lot of it goes as Christmas presents.”
Windfalls are left on the ground for birds to devour, such as the redwings and the fieldfares, as well as bats, mammals and insects.
Over their two decades of labour Scott and Graeme have taken great joy in their orchard. “It was very satisfying to see the orchard gradually shape up and get back to how it must have looked in its heyday.”
Chamber of mystery
At first, Scott and Graeme accepted the consensus of opinion that the bee-hive shaped stone chamber beneath the steeple was an ice house. “An 1870s OS map described it as such,” says Scott. “And not far away was a long, stone-faced ditch which could have been a small canal, useful as a source of ice.”
This had seemed to convince writers Sylvia P Beamon and Susan Roaf, who included it in their book The Ice-houses of Britain (pub 1990). However, they did add that a surveyor who visited the orchard in 1977 thought the chamber was an apple store.
“This would explain the word Gerizim,” says Scott. “It’s a Biblical reference meaning fruitful mountain. It would fit in with it being the creation of the Rev Pring whom CHB Elliott, in his book Winterbourne, Gloucestershire (pub 1936), describes as a very keen gardener. It explains why there is neither drainage nor an insulated passageway normally found in an ice house. It also accounts for the iron mesh door and vents in the mound as ice houses would never need ventilation. Any gaps would have been stuffed with straw and hay.”
As for the steeple, it emerged that it had been struck by lightening at least twice before it was finally moved. Once was in 1583 when it was described as “piteously wrecked” and
again 10 years later. However, on the third occasion, in 1827, it had virtually expired.
The chamber has been restored and is now Grade II listed. An 18th century weather vane was regilded and placed on top of the spire during the year Scott’s parents celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. “And now we have put a memorial to my mother in the entrance,” he says.
Scott makes one last tantalising suggestion. “Gerizim was one of a pair of Old Testament mountains, so its twin, Ebal, may also still be around. Does anyone know?”
Seventy-five per cent of Gloucestershire’s orchards have been lost in the past 50 years. Changes in farming include the introduction of chemicals and intensive growing for high output. Many small, mixed family farms with sheep and cattle grazing in the orchards have gone. Grants were given to grub out the old orchards, to increase the amount of land for food production.
On top of this is a lack of demand for the type of apples grown. Supermarkets sell imported apples all year round, leaving many people unaware of the seasonality of fruit. It is no longer the practice to buy apples to store in sheds or a cold room.
The early 1990s saw a revival in the county’s orchards, when it was realised that those left were under threat of disappearing. In many cases, only one tree remained of some local varieties. In 1992, a Restoring Our Landscape grant was introduced by Gloucestershire County Council. This lasted for approximately five years and successfully resulted in more than 3,000 orchard trees being planted. The Gloucestershire Orchard Trust was set up, and now has 150 members. Its aim is both to conserve threatened species and revitalise the fruit growing industry. Over the last decade, a special effort has been made to locate and identify local varieties. These are grafted or budded on to other trees, to save them.
Words: Victoria Jenkins Photography: Will Goddard
With subtle tones and smooth curves, an Essex garden quietly bursts into life.
Down a country lane, past wooded glades and heathland, sits a garden brimming with unfurling foliage and pristine spring flowers. In the crystal clear sunlight of early morning, a myriad of tulips shimmer from beds and borders. All are carefully colour-themed and blended with ornamental grasses, burgeoning perennials and evergreen shrubs.
Furzelea, a Victorian house, lies outside the village of Danbury, Essex, on a south-facing hillside. As one of the highest points in the county, the incline is regularly brushed by cold easterly winds. The surrounding woodland, however, forms a natural shelter-belt that allows tender plants to survive winter. The soil is a mix of sand and clay that, combined with the typically low rainfall of this area, creates dry conditions. As a result, regular mulches of compost are needed to increase water retention, while watering in prolonged warm spells is vital for the plants to thrive.
Welcoming the tulips
Owners Avril and Roger Cole-Jones have gardened on this plot for 36 years. They greet each spring with keen anticipation.
“I love to see the garden coming to life again after winter, with
new shoots breaking through the earth, fresh leaves emerging
on the trees, and a succession of bulbs,” says Avril. “I am no lover of yellow, and big golden daffodils are my pet hate. So
after the snowdrops and dainty white narcissi, tulips are what
I look forward to.”
When the couple first arrived in 1980, the one-and-a-half-acre garden showed little promise. “It was a jungle of self-seeded birch, oak and blackthorn. We could not even see the boundaries,” recalls Avril. Roger hacked a tunnel through the undergrowth, their two young daughters closely bringing up the rear, until he reached the thatched summer house at the end of the plot. He set himself a target of removing seven tree roots a weekend – an antidote to his job as an electrical engineer. Over several years the garden was cleared. “He unearthed much of the Victorian brick edging. We incorporated it into the new garden, laid on end at 45-degree angles to edge beds, paths and borders,” says Avril.
In the early years, one half of the garden was used as a paddock for the children’s ponies, while the remainder was laid largely to lawn. “We built several arches and pergolas from timber that came from the felled trees,” says Avril. The ponies left in 1991 and strips of the original garden were sold for development a few years later. She could finally realise her dream of developing the remaining two-thirds-of-an-acre plot. “The time had come to divide the garden into separate rooms,” she says. “I wanted to do this, not by creating dense screens from formal hedges, but with informal plantings of shrubs and small trees. That means there’s still a hint of what’s round the corner.”
Dividing the garden
Initially, Roger was horrified at the thought of no longer being able to see all the way from the sitting room window to the back hedge, but Avril prevailed. “I wanted a garden that you couldn’t see all in a glance, with hidden areas that would entice us outside, however bad the weather.”
Together, they started planting trees and shrubs to create partial, informal divisions between different areas. The lawn was stripped back to form beds. “Before we start a new project,
I always sketch out my ideas to scale, and then translate them onto the ground to check that they will work,” she explains. “I can’t draw so they’re little more than doodles on paper, but
I do have an eye for colour.” From the start of work in 1997, the garden is an ongoing project, continually developing.
The layout is based on circles and curves. This creates a continuous flow from one area to another, as opposed to a staccato series of beginnings and ends. “There’s something very pleasing about curves,” she says. The main view is from a raised stone terrace that lies immediately outside the kitchen. This directs the eye down the sloping garden. There are tantalising glimpses of a pond, arches, a thatched roof and shapely trees.
From the terrace, eight brick steps descend to a lawn, each side bordered by stepped box hedges. “I wanted some sort of barrier alongside the steps, but nothing as permanent as brickwork. Box hedging was ideal,” explains Avril. More box hedging edges an island bed to the right, encircling a willow standard. Just a few steps away is a large circular bed, edged in some of the original Victorian bricks. This is planted with a soft blend of buttermilk violas, wallflowers, narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ and yellow tulip ‘Fringed Elegance’. “I prefer the pale primrose yellow of this tulip to deeper golden shades,” she says.
Past the pond
A grassy path leads from the circular bed down the garden, straddled by a wooden pergola bearing the double blue Clematis macropetala ‘Maidwell Hall’. To the right lies a pond, once
home to the family’s ducks. This was enlarged five years ago, excavated to a depth of 24in (60cm), and relined. “The ducks had pecked away the original grassy edges, so we built straight-sided walls topped with bricks. This helps deter the heron from eating the goldfish.”
The grassy path continues southwards, passing camellias, a purple-leaved cherry and flowering Magnolia soulangeana. It arrives at a rustic arch covered in Akebia quinata, the chocolate vine. This produces clusters of wine red, chocolate-scented flowers in spring. “Wherever a path provides a natural passage to another part of the garden, it lends itself to an arch for climbing plants,” says Avril. “I like the idea of structures in the garden not only being features, but also having a purpose and being used.”
This arch is used to frame the view of the lowest third of the garden. Here a circular lawn is overlooked by a thatched summer house, flanked to each side by twin topiary shapes. “They started out as boring potted balls, so I gradually clipped two cottage loaf-style layers. Since then, we’ve kept adding layers.” The curving lawn is enclosed by borders filled with late-flowering tulips, primarily chosen for their colours and differing heights. “I leave tulips in from one year to the next. The deeper they are planted, the greater the chance they will return, largely because there’s less chance I will inadvertently put a fork through them,” she adds. Avril only digs deeply when planting anew. Otherwise she does little more than use a small hand fork to weed, or break the crust of the earth allowing rain to penetrate.
The palette of tulip colours changes subtly, creating an informal effect. Pinks and mauves flow down the eastern border, beneath a pink blossoming prunus ‘Kiku Shidare Zakura’. They pass a clump of blue Muscari armeniacum that originated from Roger’s mother’s garden. In the bottom border, there is an old camellia, Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ and a shrimp-pink Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’. Here, yellow and orange tulips start to dominate, changing to reds, oranges and creams along the western border. “There are no sharp contrasts, just
a gradual change of colour,” says Avril. Among the many tulips she grows, a particular favourite is the scented orange tulip ‘Ballerina’. This returns annually, each year a little shorter than the one before. She covets it for its lily shape, beautiful clear colour and fresh, strong but sweet fragrance. “I always add new bulbs to the existing clumps, so that there are different heights. It looks much more natural.”
No fan of the municipal-style massed planting, her preference is to mix tulips in with other plants. “I hate the idea of serried ranks of tulips standing over forget-me-nots or pansies,” she says. Instead, she favours specific pairings, such as red ‘Abu Hassan’ tulips with variegated sisyrinchium, and burnt orange ‘Cairo’ with Euphorbia polychroma. Other combinations include pink ‘Caravelle’ with honesty, and ‘Ballerina’ with either rusty-coloured Carex testacea or Carex elata ‘Bowles’ Golden’. “Carex are reasonably evergreen and there are eight varieties that look good in spring,” says Avril. “Grasses go well with tulips, creating a lovely informal look.”
Letting the sky in
Among the other ornamental grasses she grows are Anemanthele lessoniana, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and Deschampsia flexuosa. These are interspersed among tulips in various shades of pink that drift through the large island bed in the centre of the circular lawn. Shaped in the manner of a three-leaf clover, this bed was formed just two years ago after being marked out and stripped of turf. “We hired a rotovator to excavate down, and added our own compost. With undernourished soil like ours, you can never have enough.” Now well established, it is a very different picture from the huge old red-flowered chestnut that stood there until 2008 when it was felled by a mini tornado.
That occurred two weeks prior to a charity opening of the garden. The rotten stump was quickly dug out, then the hole backfilled with topsoil and turfed over. “We finished the day before the first visitors arrived,” recalls Avril. She now prefers to see the sky and cloud formations rather than a dense tree canopy. “Big trees hide the sky, and the grass beneath struggles to grow,” she points out. “Even when a tree is used to block an unsightly view, it often grows too tall, and hides something you’d otherwise choose to see.”
As a result, she prefers shrubs and bamboos with a finite height, or small trees that will not rob the garden of light. For example, in the island bed stands a Cercidiphyllum japonicum, the katsura tree. This is a deciduous tree with beautiful heart-shaped leaves that open a soft bronze before turning green and colouring up in autumn. Beneath it are tulips in various shades of peach and coral. Threaded through them are silver clumps of leafy Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ and Astelia chathamica. A variety of heucheras, including ‘Mocha’, ‘Brass Lantern’ and ‘Marmalade’ with leaves in shades of bronze, coral and caramel sit with bronze fennel.
An outcrop of Euphorbia mellifera adds height, while there are
a number of spiky phormiums. Among them are pink-striped ‘Maori Queen’, gracefully arching ‘Jester’, and compact, brightly coloured ‘Flamingo’. “The old-fashioned Phormium tenax grow too big, but most modern varieties are smaller. They come in
a range of eye-catching colours and, being more arching in habit than upright, blend easily into the planting.” By mid spring, Avril’s phormiums are immaculate thanks to tough treatment earlier in the season. “I hack back any damaged leaves and they look so much better after being thinned out.”
Different phormium varieties punctuate the borders enclosing the circular lawn. They culminate at the top of the western border with a magnificent Phormium tenax ‘Purpureum’. This provides a dramatic, dusky backdrop to orange ‘Ballerina’ and caramel-coloured ‘Cairo’ tulips. To the right is a second archway that frames a view of the White Garden, sitting in a quiet corner bordered by the boundary fence, house and, to the east, the pond. A white metal bench is surrounded by a border of tulips ‘White Triumphator’ and ‘Queen of Night’, narcissi, spirea, alyssum and self-seeding honesty. “It’s a lovely quiet place to sit with a cup of tea, when I find the time,” adds Avril.
Time is in short supply because maintaining a garden ofmsuch interest is almost a full-time job from spring until autumn. But Avril would have it no other way. “I’ve always gardened, helping my mother sow seeds from a very young age. I can’t imagine life without a garden. It is forever stimulating and, with the unpredictability of the climate, is never dull, even if the outcome is not always what you expect.”
Furzelea, Bicknacre Road, Danbury, Essex CM3 4JR.
Tel 01245 225726.
Words and photography: Nicola Stocken
PLANTS KEEP CHANGING THROUGHOUT THE ICY MONTHS TO PERFORM WELL IN THE SPRING AND SUMMER
Under its seasonal covering of snow or frost, the winter garden appears dead and lifeless. Brave splashes of colour come from witch hazels, viburnums and a few other shrubs. But the majority of the garden seems to be sleeping, waiting for the warmer weather and longer daylight hours.
This is an illusion. The garden never sleeps, and all winter there are subtle but vital changes taking place. Under the soil, the cold is working its magic on seeds, bulbs and roots. Even the chill winds have a role to play to ensure flowers and fruits appear later in the year. Without the winter cold, gardens would be less beautiful in the summer.
A period of cold weather is essential to many plants and crops. Without it, some would struggle to grow at all, while others would not flower or produce crops.
One example of crops that need a cold spell are fruit trees such as apples, plums and pears. If temperatures remain high, these trees would not come into growth in spring, nor produce flower buds. In a process known as vernalisation, the reduction in daylight initially induces the trees to go dormant. They shed their leaves, which would require too much energy to maintain in winter when they make less food. Then the trees must be exposed to a certain number of days with a minimum temperature, usually less than 7°C. Only when this has happened are they ready to burst into growth and bloom when temperatures rise. This process is designed to ensure this happens in spring, and not in autumn.
The amount of days of cold required is expressed in chill hours. Some require longer periods of cold than others, although the reason for this is not currently known. However, the plants are believed to store the necessary information and pass it on in their genes.
Bulbs in winter
Hardy bulbs need different weather conditions at different times of the year to grow and produce flowers. Flower bulbs are formed in summer, as a result of heat in a process called baking. Root growth is stimulated by the cooler and wetter weather of autumn. However, it is the cold of winter that is needed to stimulate stem growth. Temperatures of 10°C or below trigger the elongation of the flower stem.
Attempts to grow hyacinths or daffodils in the home often results in hyacinths with a clump of flowers crowded in the neck of the bulb or daffodils on dwarf stalks. This is the result of ignoring the bulbs’ need to spend at least 10 weeks in cool conditions, ideally outside below 10°C. There are exceptions to this such as ‘Paperwhite’ and ‘Soleil d’Or’. Native to warm Mediterranean regions, they do not need a period of cold for their stems to grow. It is autumn rain, rather than winter cold, that spurs on these daffodils’ growth.
Getting ahead in the race for light
In winter, herbaceous plants stop growing and die back. Instead, they store the carbohydrates they make from water and carbon dioxide from the air in their roots. This provides the plants with a reserve of energy, designed to give them a head start in spring. They store the carbohydrates as starch because this is more concentrated in energy (calories) than simple sugars. Starch is not water soluble, making it difficult to move around the plant in the sap.
The onset of cold weather, however, triggers enzymes in the root to convert the starch back into soluble sugar. This means it can be moved to the growing tips of the plant, ready for early spring’s surge of growth. Once the conditions are right, they are able to push their shoots to the sunlight ahead of surrounding plants such as annuals. This stops the new growth from being smothered by the hundreds of annual seedlings which are germinating at the same time. Peonies and dahlias are both examples of the wide range of plants this benefits. It is also the reason why parsnips taste sweeter after they have been frosted.
Saving the next generation
When grown from seed some plants need a cold spell before they will flower. These include biennials such as wallflowers, aquilegias, sweet Williams and onions. Blooming in late spring, they release their seeds in summer. If the seeds germinated immediately, they would flower and set seed as soon as they were big enough. These new seeds would not have time to ripen before winter arrived. The cold weather would kill them, with the loss of a whole generation. Instead the plants make healthy clumps of foliage the first year. Then they wait for a sufficient winter chilling before producing flowers. No matter how early in spring these seeds are sown, they will only produce leaves in the first year, never flowers.
The necessary cold period to stimulate flowering can be very short. Several biennial plants, such as parsnips, carrots, beet and onions, are grown as vegetables. The starches and sugars stored in their roots provide valuable food when eaten. If these vegetables are sown too early in spring, there is a risk of short cold snap while they are growing in April or May. This could fool them into thinking that winter had come and gone, and it was time to flower. At this point the plants ‘bolt’, sending up flower stems and the crop is lost to the gardener.
The biennials above require winter chilling to make them flower. There are other plants, however, that need their seeds to be vernalised before they germinate at all. The seeds undergo a period of dormancy. In some cases, simply the softening of the hard coat by frost and weathering action will allow the seed to germinate. This applies to some lathyrus species including sweet peas.
In other cases, this weathering is linked to the need for a cold, moist period. This triggers the seed’s embryo to grow and expand. It breaks through the softened seed coat seeking the sun and nutrients. Seeds do this because if they germinated in autumn, the seedlings would be unlikely to survive the winter. If frost did not kill them, grazing animals, slugs and snails would eat them in the absence of other food. Delaying germination till spring gives every seed a better chance of survival to maturity.
All these processes show that winter is not just a time of frosty beauty. Its chilling weather creates more than a snowy landscape, it plays an essential role in ensuring that the following season is as productive and beautiful as the last.
Words: Geoff Stebbings Photography: Alamy
ICY COVERING OF CRYSTALS TURNS THE COUNTRYSIDE WHITE ON A CLEAR NIGHT
Onclear, still winter nights, a delicate covering of crystals turns the countryside white. The phenomenon is hoar frost. Leaves, flowers and stems are covered with delicate patterns. Spiders’ webs are outlined with a fragile coating. Fine feathers and needles turn grass silver and give trees a ghostly frame.
The name hoar comes from the old English word, hor or har, for white or grey. These frosts form on cold, cloudless nights, with little or no wind. The conditions must be right for crystals to form directly from water vapour present in the air. This process is called sublimation and happens when air changes to a solid without passing through a liquid stage. A true hoar frost is formed solely by sublimation, and is neither frozen dew nor droplets of water. In practice, the frost is often a combination of frozen dew and sublimation.
On these nights, the ground, and the air just above it, steadily cool as they rapidly lose heat to the atmosphere by radiation. Eventually the dew point is reached – this is the temperature at which water vapour in air condenses into liquid water. Both the air temperature and the dew point need to be below the freezing point of water for hoar frost to form.
When the radiation persists, and the temperature continues to drop, the air becomes supersaturated with moisture. The excess moisture is deposited in the form of needle-like crystals that bind themselves onto surfaces.
A crystal world
If there is a lot of moisture available during the long winter night, hoar frost is formed in a thick layer. This can resemble a covering of snow. The pure white is caused by the reflection and refraction of light as it interacts en masse with the frost’s crystalline structure.
An area of high-pressure during the winter will provide the quiet conditions suitable for the formation of a hoar frost. An old weather rhyme says ‘clear moon, frost soon’. When it occurs on successive nights, and does not melt during the day, an ever thicker coating of crystals are formed. This can be 1in (2.5cm) or more long. Conversely a cloudy sky or windy conditions inhibits radiation, preventing a frost.
It is possible for a lawn to be coated with hoar frost while trees and shrubs are frost-free. This happens when the ground temperature is several degrees colder than the air higher up, which remains above freezing point.
Places that are particularly susceptible to a frost are known as frost hollows. As air chills its density increases. On a clear night, slopes in undulating country lose heat by radiation cooling the air above them. The cold air runs downhill like water into hollows and valleys. It is known as a katabatic flow, from the Greek word katabatikos, meaning downhill. If it is trapped by embankments across the valley or by natural spurs jutting outwards, a lake of cold air can form. The valley floor is coated with a thick hoar frost whereas higher up may be frost free. During March 2012 there was only one air frost at a weather station in east Surrey situated above a downland valley. A weather station close by on the floor of the valley recorded 16 air frosts.
Hoar frost in the garden
Gardeners can inadvertently create frost pockets by building a solid fence across a slope. The type and texture of soil is also a factor in contributing to the likelihood and severity of a frost. Sandy soils lose heat more rapidly and reach the frost point more readily than a clay soil. Moist soils will not cool as briskly or lose as much heat.
Hoar frost can be harmful to more delicate plants, shrubs and trees. Water freezes within the plant’s cellular structure, breaking down the walls. A vulnerable time is just after dawn when the air is often at its coldest. Rays from the rising sun are cast onto foliage, causing a rapid defrosting. This ruptures the sides of the plant’s cells when the sap expands. By putting fleece covers over plants, frost is prevented from forming on the plants themselves and averts that sudden thawing. Plants inside a glass cold frame get some protection from a coating of hoar frost. The covering raises the temperature inside by several degrees, giving some protection from radiation.
The longer the duration of the frost, the more a plant suffers. It is the buds and flowers that are most tender. One plant that is susceptible is Magnolia soulangiana. A mild winter induces the tree to flower early, then a spring frost scorches it.
In an average year, many places will have twice as many grass or ground frosts than air frosts. Air temperatures measured at 4ft (1.2m) can often be up to 40C higher than those on the lawn, flower bed or vegetable patch. A thick hoar frost can blacken potatoes while the blossom high on an apple tree may be untouched, remaining just above freezing.
The effects of nature’s frozen tracery are unpredictable, but its beauty remains one of the wonders of the winter.
Words: Ian Currie Photography: Alamy
VIVID BERRIES AND LEAVES OF SPINDLE TREE PROVIDE FOOD FOR BIRDS AND VISUAL TREAT
With the approach of winter, spindle trees start to set the garden ablaze with the colour of their fruit and foliage. These shrubs, botanically known as euonymus, shake off their previously plain appearance, as the leaves burn red and purple. It is, however, the bright, jewel-like fruits that gleam in misty hedgerows. In spinning cascades of pink and orange, they create droplets of pure, bright colour amid the drab branches of other deciduous shrubs. These fruits persist like hot embers long after the foliage has fallen.
A feast for birds
The fat seed capsules are divided into four plump symmetrical lobes like miniature lanterns. These split to reveal glossy orange, rounded fruits that descend from their covers and spin in the breeze. As they ripen and become more prominent, the colourful seeds provide a valuable food source. Persisting well into winter, birds feast off them through the coldest months.
The birds are attracted by the orange fleshy seed coat, with its high-calorie nutrition. Inside the coat the true seeds remain intact after being eaten. Because of this, they are able to make their way through the birds’ digestive tracts to be deposited far away from the parent plant. This is an exquisitely balanced natural relationship. It supports native birds, helping them to survive through winter, while the spindle tree is able to propagate itself throughout the countryside.
The native Euonymus europaeus is such a veritable larder for birds that it will often be aggressively defended by robins making it part of their territory. For this reason,
it is known as ‘robins’ bread’ in some areas of the country.
The fruit is poisonous to humans, as are all parts of the plant. The toxic berries, however, have been put to good use. One traditional remedy for head lice involved applying the crushed berries to the scalp. Referencing the plant’s poisonous nature, the name ‘euonymus’ may originate from Euonyme. In Greek mythology she was the mother of vengeance-wreaking goddesses, the Furies.
The bright fruits are often initially seen dangling below a mantle of colourful leaves. Before it falls, the spindle tree’s foliage has one of the most impressive transformations in the British landscape. It turns from an unobtrusive dark green to a bright pinkish red with splashes of purple and hints of orange.
‘Red Cascade’, a cultivar of Euonymus europaeus, has the brightest and perhaps best colour for this time of year of any plant. A spreading shrub, it reaches 10ft (3m) across and 8ft (2.5m) high. The scalloped leaves gradually turn deep red, starting at the midrib and spreading to the leaf edges. Before the metamorphosis is complete, the leaves take on hues of pink, orange and purple. ‘Red Cascade’ bears plentiful fruit, the branches bowing under the weight.
A lesser-known characteristic of spindle trees is just as fascinating. A close look into the criss-crossing mass of leafless winter branches and the ‘winged’ outline of the straight stems becomes apparent. The branches develop four wings of corky bark, which if cut through have a cross-shaped silhouette. This feature is most prominent on Euonymus alatus, known as the winged spindle. Originating in Asia, it grows to 10ft (3m) in height, gradually spreading to a similar width. With age the bark of the main stems may become fissured, adding to the unusual and sculptural winter outline of this plant.
A limestone lover
The native European spindle, Euonymus europaeus, thrives on alkaline soils and is common on the chalk downs of southern England and on limestone hills and vales. Preferring full sun and freely draining soils, it is tolerant of winds and hard frosts. While it can be found in the shrubby lower canopy of ash, beech or yew woodland, the leaves will be at their most colourful in an open, sunny position. The one situation it will not tolerate is boggy, waterlogged ground. In its natural habitat a spindle tree may live for over 100 years.
Once a very common hedgerow plant, a campaign of grubbing out in the 1970s has left it a rarity in the wild. The spindle tree was thought to harbour crop diseases and pests, especially black bean aphid, which is a major pest of vegetable crops. There was little evidence that euonymus was a truly significant threat to farming.
Now the native plant is spreading in gardens, where it is an easy-to-grow, highly ornamental shrub.
Where to grow in the garden
Ideally, spindle trees are grown where there is an unobstructed view of them in winter. The centre of an island bed is a good location, where its summer foliage offers a useful green foil for tall flowering herbaceous perennials. A winter border with bright-stemmed winter dogwoods Cornus alba, Cornus sericea and Cornus sanguinea is another good site.
There are over 170 species of euonymus around the world but just a handful make suitable garden plants. Euonymus europaeus prefers alkaline soils, but will also grow well in neutral or slightly acidic ground as long as the soil is free-draining.
It is one of the easiest shrubs to maintain, growing in full sun, part shade, sheltered or exposed situations. It is a tough plant that can be used to provide a windbreak, particularly when grown with other wind-tolerant trees such as hawthorn and dog roses. With its abundant food, it is an excellent choice for a wildlife or nature garden.
‘Red Cascade’ is one of the best cultivars of E. europaeus for the garden. Its colour and fruit has earned it an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Euonymus planipes is another good spindle tree for the garden. Displaying some of the most dramatic winter colour, it grows to 10ft (3m) high. With pinnate leaves reminiscent of an ash tree, it has a vase-like shape that spreads upwards and outwards from a narrow base.
Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ is an ideal shrub for less spacious gardens, reaching only 3½ft (1m) in height. With the same distinctive winged wood as the larger E. alatus, it makes an attractive, smaller sculptural winter plant.
Spindle trees need little work. They form a naturally balanced and well branching framework. Little pruning is required, removing only dead, diseased or crossing and rubbing branches, or branches that are growing in an awkward place. Any pruning is done in late winter or early spring before weeding around the base. The tree will then benefit from a mulch of well-rotted garden compost.
The spindle tree is a fascinating plant, valued for its unique aesthetic qualities, wildlife-friendly properties and its many practical uses. It deserves a home in British gardens where the bright fruits and colouring leaves welcome the changing of the seasons and feed hungry birds.
Words: Melissa Mabbit Photography: Alamy
FLOWER-FILLED HAVEN FULL OF COLOUR AND FRAGRANCE
All summer long, a garden nestling in the valley of the River Pang in Berkshire resonates to the sound of bees. From a small wildflower meadow at the front of the house to a formal walled garden at the rear, the plot is filled with nectar- and pollen-rich blooms. Since starting to keep honeybees eight years ago, owner Fran Wakefield has filled her quarter-acre plot with plants that provide these essential foods for her two hives.
“Nearly everything I plant now is with bees in mind,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see them in the air at this time of year. They are always so busy and even when you can’t see them, you can hear them. They make a lovely noise.”
Making a bee-friendly plot
Tithe Barn and its garden are in Tidmarsh, an ancient village surrounded by low-lying flower-filled meadows. The soil is rich loam with chalk from the river. The 18th century barn sits almost in the centre of the 28½sq yd (24sq m) plot. When Fran moved here more than 30 years ago, the garden was bounded by leylandii and saw very little sun. The sloping plot was mainly lawn with an old acacia tree in the centre and a few containers to provide colour. Then eight years ago, the neighbouring manor house was pulled down and redeveloped. As a result of the work, Fran lost hedges and the acacia tree, although she gained a new wall to match her existing two 10ft (3m) high red brick walls.
“The changes let the sunshine in,” she says. “I thought, I need to make the most of this.” She decided to strip the garden out and start anew. At the same time, she wanted to keep bees, something she used to do. She got two hives, which are each home to between 45,000 to 60,000 bees in the summer.
“I wanted to create a classical walled garden to complement the 1760s brick and flint barn,” she says. “There is a formal framework of low hedges, straight paths and box-edges borders filled with flowers in soft pastel shades.”
This scheme provides the backdrop for her bee-orientated planting in the rear garden, where one of the hives is located. The other sits in a small wildflower garden at the front of the barn. It all combines to create a haven for both Fran and her bees.
Abundance of flowers
The wildflower meadow replaced an area of lawn to the left of the drive and courtyard area. “It’s a favourite bee haunt,” says Fran. The hive here is surrounded by corn poppies, white field chamomile and purple toadflax. Rich in pollen and nectar, these are magnets for the bees.
From the front of the barn, a path leads down the side, past a small patio with pots of hostas, to a gate into the walled garden.
In summer, this is a riot of colour with roses, peonies, clematis, delphiniums and other herbaceous perennials in full bloom. Flowers tumble over antique terracotta pots, fill the beds, line paths or climb arches and walls. This abundance of flowering plants is ideal for Fran’s honeybees, as it is easy for them to work their way across the borders. They do not have to fly far from their hives in the garden to find sufficient pollen and nectar. Each colony needs to collect 66lbs (30kg) of pollen and 264lbs (120kg) of nectar simply to survive. To provide a store of honey, they need to gather more than this.
“The bees have plenty of choice for their foraging,” says Fran. “They like single, simple flowers such as geraniums that give them easy access to their pollen or nectar.
“I avoid hybrids or double flowering plants, as the bees struggle with these. However, if there is something I want that the bees don’t like, such as a rose or peony, I still plant it. There is enough in the garden for the bees to feed on.”
To the right of the gate is a border of lavender ‘Hidcote’. Every single stem on this plant has multiple flowers, so the bees can work it easily, moving from one to the next with little expense of energy. Lavender also has the ability to release its nectar gradually, to keep the bees coming back.
To the left, a climbing rose, ‘Goldfinch’, covers the walls of the nearest corner. This restrained rambling rose is ideal for a small space. Its button-like, fruit-scented blooms are covered with golden anthers, loved by the pollen-gathering bees. The petals fall onto the square brick courtyard below. Here, square Victorian seed pans are filled with succulents and thyme. These tiny, low-growing plants are ideal for the bees, flowering even when a lack of water affects other plants.
“They all shrug off drought, and are virtually maintenance free,” says Fran. “The only thing I do is add crocks and pea gravel to the bottom of the pot to ensure good drainage because waterlogging will kill the succulents.”
Fran’s second beehive sits in a quiet and sheltered spot between two herbaceous beds along the east wall. Creamy white rose ‘Alberic Barbier’ standards and allium ‘Globemaster’ are planted here. The bees swarm to the alliums’ starry clusters of violet-purple flowers. Flourishing alongside them are valerian, hardy geraniums, catmint and delphiniums. All are popular with the bees, particularly the open-cupped geraniums, which allow easy access to their nectar to the short-tongued honeybees. The open flowers of delphiniums are visited for their pollen, rather than nectar. Valerian and catmint both have clusters of small flowers that are easy for the bees to work. Flowering through the summer into autumn, they provide a long-lasting food source.
Behind the beds, espaliered apple and pear trees, their varieties now forgotten, grow along the east wall. Planted as part of the redesign, they burst into a mass of blossom in spring. On warm days, they are covered in bees seeking nectar and in turn helping to pollinate the trees.
A place to drink
A path leads past these herbaceous beds, to a corner where an arbour is tucked away beneath trees. This is an area of dry shade where pachysandra, ivy, and periwinkles grow. Flowering from March, pachysandra and periwinkles provide food for bees early in the season when other flowers have yet to bloom. The late-flowering ivy is an important source of nectar later in the year when the bees build up their store of food to see the colony through the winter.
A shady stumpery spills over with ferns and hostas, one of Fran’s favourite plants.
“I’m passionate about hostas, growing 20 different varieties. The leaves are like an embroidery. The bees do go to the spike-shaped blooms, but they prefer flowers they can work and work, such as the verbena,” she says.
Access to water is essential for the honeybees. As well as drinking it, they carry water back to the hive where it is used to regulate the temperature. They also use it to break down nectar from plants such as oil seed rape, which crystallises in the hive. The rape grows in the countryside beyond the garden, and Fran often watches her bees travel out to work it. Under the arbour is a rescued animal feeder perched on brick pillars. Planted with waterlilies, it is an important place for the bees.
A path continues along the back wall, where a border is planted with more hostas and frothy yellow alchemilla. This is another plant whose myriad tiny flowers are covered with foraging bees. The foxgloves planted here are another of Fran’s favourites.
The south and west boundary walls support clematis ‘Montana’ and climbing roses. Covered with big, open flowers, clematis are ideal for bees. Climbing rose ‘Perennial Blue’, is a mass of bluish purple blooms each July. Its open flowers are good for the bees who can get into them easily and take pollen.
A central pathway connects the back wall with the barn’s terrace. It widens in the middle of the walled garden to create a square that encloses a still, round pool. “I love watching the honeybees sit on the edge of the pool to drink, before flying off in search of more nectar,” she says.
Fran puts as much energy into her garden as the bees that work the flowers. She is rewarded not only by the beautiful plants but also the honey from her bees. “The garden gives me a deep connection with nature. This comes from the fact that the flowers I grow are to attract insects, not only for their beauty,” she says. “I’m giving nature’s cycle a helping hand.”
Words and Photography: Nicola Stocken
The feature about Fran's bee garden originally appeared in the July / August 2015 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.
A DEVON PLOT is filled with a variety of tall grasses that tumble onto curving paths
Autumn brings silver grasses and golden leaves to a Devon garden that tumbles in terraces down the Blackdown Hills near the hamlet of Dalwood. To the south, just seven miles as the crow flies, lies the sea. Below, the gently undulating landscape of the Yarty Valley stretches eastwards as far as the eye can see. Wooded hills, grazed pastures and fertile fields are bounded by ancient hedgerows, a living reminder of the generations of farmers who have worked this land.
It is now more than half a century since Mary and John Benger settled at Burrow Farm and, bit by bit, turned the fields surrounding their farmhouse into a 10-acre garden and woodland. The hillside lies mostly on heavy clay, but John ran a dairy farm on the land, so there was no shortage of well-rotted manure to improve the soil.
In the early days, all the pasture was needed to feed the cows. The only unused land was a derelict former Roman clay pit. “I was so desperate to create a garden that I started there,” recalls Mary. Slowly, with help from their four small children, she cleared the brambles in the old clay pit, revealing an ancient field maple. This still stands today in the Woodland Garden, a tranquil shady oasis filled with birdsong.
Initially, there was no money to spare for planting, but some informal bartering with a local nurseryman resulted in milk being exchanged for plants. “After that I just kept planting, planting and planting,” she says.
In the mid-1980s, John retired and the cows left. “For ages, I had been quietly stealing little bits of field to turn into garden, but now I had all the pasture to choose from,” says Mary.
Since then, she has created new areas including a Terraced Garden, Millennium Garden and, five years ago, the Anniversary Grasses Garden. Each section is allowed to mature before work starts on the next. “The garden has evolved slowly, and a few years have always passed between establishing one area and designing a new one. This means each has a very distinct character,” she explains.
Separating each area are mature oaks, maples, ash, magnolias, birches and cherries, that frame distant vistas, shrub borders and sweeping lawns. “Broad expanses of lawn are like a sorbet between courses, cleansing the palate before you encounter a different style of garden,” says Mary. The lawns not only separate, but also serve to bind the variety of styles together. They link naturalistic planting with formal, colour-themed areas, cottage style with rose pergola, woodland with herbaceous or terraces with courtyard.
In autumn, it is the grasses garden that takes pride of place. Delicate wafting fronds mingle with rich perennials such as asters and sedums. Sited on the westerly boundary, it was created in 2010 to celebrate the family’s 50 years at the farm. It consists of twin, prairie-style borders that run downhill, from north to south. “The idea was to make a garden that, at its autumn peak, feels enclosed with the plants towering up to either side,” Mary explains. This was achieved by lowering the level of a central, winding path and building up the borders. The result is that the planting appears to be tiered. “Then the path twists and turns, obscuring what’s ahead, which gives a feeling of mystery in a relatively small space.”
The grasses garden
The grasses garden was created in a field on the farm’s westerly boundary, down the hillside from the house. The start of the path through the garden is flanked by the first of many clumps of Miscanthus sinensis grasses. These include variegated ‘Cosmopolitan’, and diminutive ‘Yakushima Dwarf’. Its pink-tinged spikelets grow to just 24in (60cm) high, turning silver with age.
“Miscanthus are repeated along the borders’ length. They are the key to the design. Their height ensures that, once the first corner is turned, you cannot see out in any direction,” explains Mary. By chance, when she was planning the beds, a local nursery was closing down. She bought the entire stock of miscanthus for £200.
As the path winds deeper between the borders, the towering clumps of miscanthus and pampas grass become ever more deeply interspersed with flowering herbaceous perennials. There are pink sedum, bistort, purple Verbena bonariensis, pink and purple asters. “I plant them in conjunction with later-flowering plants for extra interest,” says Mary. “The borders are densely packed so that the plants hold each other up. This removes the need for staking.”
She originally planned a mauve and pink colour scheme, but there are also some yellow nasturtiums that have spread far and wide. “When I first planted the borders, I wanted to echo the yellow of the buttercups in the neighbouring field, so I planted nasturtiums. They did so well I have been pulling them out ever since,’’ she says.
The yellow flowers tumble onto the path as it narrows round the first corner, intermingling with foliage of Lathyrus tuberosus, a perennial sweet pea. Nearby is the first of many clumps of geranium ‘Rozanne’, a great favourite. “It’s so vigorous that it almost climbs up other plants,” marvels Mary. It is a wonderful filler that binds the planting together, as well as spilling into the path. This reinforces the seamless transition between path and border, created by an all-embracing mulch of wood chippings.
When planning the borders, Mary first marked out the path that curves between them so that neither end is fully visible from the other. With the path being countersunk, any excavated top soil could be piled onto the borders each side to create gentle slopes for planting. “Then I laid the pots of ornamental grasses onto the soil, arranged according to height. This is so that the eventual effect will be graduated from path-side to back, with see-through grasses near the front edge,” she explains.
Prior to planting, compost was added to each hole and every potted plant was soaked in water for a couple of hours. “After that, the borders were only watered as needed during dry spells, until well established,” she says.
Once the grasses were planted, they were interspersed with Michaelmas daisies. “I repeated the same varieties at least twice along the length of each border, in order to create a sense of rhythm,” she adds. Finally, any gaps were filled with lower-growing plants such as persicarias, salvias and sedums. These quickly spread into their allotted spaces. “The great advantage of grasses and herbaceous plants, as opposed to shrubs, is that they reach their ultimate height in the first year, filling out in subsequent years.”
With its all-embracing mulch of wood chippings, the border is low maintenance. The only work is in late winter when that year’s flowerheads are cut back. To prevent the borders looking bare after this happens, several columnar evergreen Thuja occidentalis emerge as the path winds downhill.
At this point, the border on the left side parts to reveal a wooden bench, edged in a low box hedge. “I like seats where you can sit and contemplate the plants. Otherwise, you just walk straight through, without pausing,” says Mary. From the bench, the tiered planting of the border opposite can be fully appreciated. It ranges from sedums, asters and hardy geranium, past clumps of Miscanthus sinensis and Verbena bonariensis, to the highest point where pampas grasses stand tall. Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’ is a great success, a compact variety with silky, silver-yellow plumes.
To the right of the bench stands a clump of Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’, a shimmering golden mass when caught in the evening light. Nearby are clumps of Verbena bonariensis and pink Aster amellus ‘Brilliant’, a magnet to tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies.
“So many of the later flowering plants are rich in nectar,” adds Mary. There is also an unusually restrained, pink bistort. “Both bistort and sedum are grazed by the deer that wander in from the countryside,” she explains. Nowadays, when cutting back the previous year’s sedum heads, she leaves the long stalks to protect the new foliage from being eaten.
With its blend of autumn-flowering perennials and ornamental grasses, this garden changes in mood according to the light. As dawn breaks above the distant hills and valleys of the Devon landscape, the grasses take on a cool silvery sheen. At sunset, they bask in a warm, golden glow, blending into the surrounding landscape with deceptive ease and great beauty.
Words and Photographs: Nicola Stocken
The full feature on the garden at Burrow Farm appeared in the Sept / Oct 2015 issue of LandScape.
FRESH TURF BRINGS NEW LIFE TO A SPRING GARDEN
Large or small, a lawn provides a splash of colour in the garden all year round. It also gives a backdrop to set off colourful border plants and shrubs. Whether starting a lawn from scratch, or replacing a tired-looking patch of grass, laying good quality turf creates an immediate effect. Spring is the ideal time to do this, as the grass will start growing in the warmer weather.
For the best results, the ground needs first to be carefully prepared. Existing turf is removed. If this is severely compacted, a turf cutter can be hired. Perennial weeds such as docks and dandelions are eradicated either by digging out by hand, or with a specially formulated herbicide. Sufficient leaves need to be showing to soak up the chemicals, while time is allowed for weeds to die prior to laying the turf. If digging out by hand, care is taken to remove the long tap root, which can be more than 18in (45cm) in length.
The soil is then dug to a minimum depth of 6in (15cm), either using a fork or rotovator. The soil is broken down to a fine tilth using a rake, with new top soil or compost added to give the new lawn the best possible start.
Laying the turf
The ground is levelled with a rake, and then firmed either by treading the area several times in different directions on foot or using a roller. The longer the ground can now be left to settle, the more level the lawn will be.
Lawn turf varies according to the mixture of grass species used, so it is important to choose the correct turf for the situation. Fine-leaved grass creates a velvety but delicate putting green effect. Tougher, broader-leaved varieties create a resilient, hard-wearing lawn. At least five per cent more turf than required is ordered, to allow for cutting and shaping. The turf should be laid within 24 hours of delivery, but if work is delayed, laying the turves flat and watering will avoid discolouring.
Using a wide board to stand or kneel on when laying turves avoids indenting the soil. Starting from one corner of the area, as each new roll is unrolled, it is closely butted to the previous one. No gaps are left. To conceal the joins, they are staggered on each subsequent row, so that the grass knits together. The turf is pushed into the joins, never pulled or stretched as this damages the root structure. If unevenness is apparent while laying the turves, soil is added or removed. At regular intervals during laying, it is important to ensure that the underside of each turf is in firm contact with the soil. A scaffold board is laid over the surface, and walked evenly along to press down the turves.
Wherever the lawn finishes, the edges are finished neatly. In instances where the turf runs directly up to a brick wall or wooden decking, the turf is draped over the hard surface. It is patted down and carefully cut to fit with a kitchen knife. Once the excess turf is removed, the edge is pressed down on the inside. Matching the level of the edge and turf allows a mower to run over it easily, creating a clean edge. If the turf finishes at a flower bed, top soil is piled up to cover the bare edges. This prevents them drying out, curling up and dying. Once the turf has taken, a new clean edge can be cut with a turf cutter.
When laying is complete, the turf is watered thoroughly in the early morning or evening. It is kept moist for several weeks, until firmly established. Thereafter, the grass only needs watering during dry periods, with an occasional thorough soaking. Watering little and often only encourages shallow rooting.
Two weeks after laying, the turf is ready for its first cut. The mower blades are set high so as not to remove more than one quarter of the grass blade length. Thereafter, it is cut weekly, removing one third of the blade length. The direction of cut is varied, alternating straight with diagonal stripes on different occasions. This avoids ruts being created by the mower going over old ground every time. Finally, crisp, straight edges are cut using a string line and turf cutter.
Words and Photography: Nicola Stocken
The feature about creating a lawn originally appeared in the Mar / April 2016 issue of LandScape.
For back issues click here.