In winter, more than at any other time of the year, a gardener needs something to look forward to; something to lift the spirits above the drizzle, grey skies and chilly days when it’s impossible to be out and about with the spade. Comfort food is good for starters and I always fall back on my stored veges to provide the likes of baked potatoes, roasted garlic, and rich pumpkin and coriander soup. But what can the garden promise the soul during the bitter months? To find out, I asked three good gardening friends what they were looking forward to seeing in their own winter gardens. If their treasures inspire you, make sure you get to the garden centre pronto.
When the temperatures drop, I can’t wait to see my first Caucasian snowdrops appear. Galanthus caucasicus does well me for me here in Dunedin and although the garden can seem completely bare in April or May, come June, these little flowers are suddenly there, appearing out of nowhere on the shady side of the house. All snowdrops are lovely but I particularly look forward to caucasicus because of its pretty grey-green leaves. I have mine growing on a slope which helps with drainage, and I add a sprinkle of slow-release fertilizer pellets to the ground every year or two (no more). The best thing about caucasicus, apart from its being very reliable, is that it divides so easily. If a clump gets too large, it can be broken up (which is a good idea because too much clumping pushes the bulbs out of the soil). But what tends to happen with me is that the clumps break up naturally while I’m cultivating around them, and then I have snowdrops coming up everywhere – which is just the way I like it.
Here in Golden Bay, I wouldn’t want to spend a winter without my old friend Daphne Mezereum. I like the way it flowers on the bare wood, as if its tricking winter! In my garden, it blooms from late autumn into winter, but not all at once. It tends to come out bit by bit. My soil is a bit clayish but this daphne doesn’t mind a heavy soil. We don’t get wildly heavy frosts here, but even if we did, they wouldn’t worry Mezereum. It’s very hardy. I’ve had a few of these lovely perfumed shrubs over the years and I’m not sure if that’s because they’re short-loved (which they are) or because I haven’t put them in the best spot! A very good gardener once told me that wherever you put them, it had better be good because they resent being moved! And don’t plan on pruning them because they don’t like that, either. To be honest, I just live for their winter fragrance, so they can be as fussy as they like – I’ll always make a space for one in my garden.
I know everyone wants a new shade of hellebore each year, but I’m a fan of oldie: Hellaborus argutifolius (I still call it H. corsicus even though they changed its name a while back). It’s got height – up to a metre. I like that in a winter flower because it means the blooms are off the mucky ground just when you need them to be. I like its leaves, too. They’re a real feature – as spiky as holly. Of course, green flowers are a hit with me and I like the plain clean colour of these ones; none of these speckles everyone’s going for now. Argutifolius does well for me in sun or shade. I’m pretty acid here in New Plymouth – good rhododendron country – so I sprinkle a little bit of lime around this hellebore when I think of it. And I tuck it in under the trees where it gets a bit of shelter. Once it’s in flower, its heads are heavy and the wind will soon flatten them if you’re not careful. I really enjoy argutifolius. I reckon they’re a bloke’s hellebore! Winter wouldn’t be the same without them.