While the inhospitable weather makes gardening outside difficult, this is a good time to focus on what you can grow under glass. West Dean Gardens, in West Sussex, has one of the country’s finest kitchen gardens, including spectacular glasshouse displays from early spring onwards. The work that goes into these starts long before anything comes into flower.
“We have only just finished cleaning the glasshouses,” explains Sarah Wain, who has run West Dean with her husband, Jim Buckland, since 1991. “Inside and out, with soapy water and brushes. Pests like mealy bug can live on the structure of the glass over winter. Also, if the outside gets too dusty, that can affect the quality of the light getting in. The whole cleaning process takes around two months, with a team of three working on it.
“The pots and trays need to be washed, too. That takes three or four months, with two people working for an hour and a half a day.”
The heated glasshouses at West Dean mean that staff are already starting to pot up displays for the spring. They hope to be finished by February, when the team will also begin to sow seed for early crops, under glass or cloches.
“I have been combing through the RHS trials at Wisley,” says Sarah, “and I’ll be using some of the winners of AGM awards, and growing those for the public to see. Particularly with common plants, such as basil or courgette, I think it is important for people to see which varieties stand up well to the climate, or have disease-resistance built into them.”
For gardeners without the luxury of a heated greenhouse, she says, there are other good options for winter displays under glass.
“Many succulents are coldtolerant, as long as they do not get too wet – ideal for growing in unheated glasshouses. There are plenty, for example, that are hardy down to five degrees. Some primulas can be good, too, for a really attractive winter display.
“Veg-wise, there are lots of salads, herbs and small vegetables that are cold-tolerant: coriander, winter hardy lettuce, corn salad. You just need to make sure that you have the growing requirements for your variety – easily found on the internet now – and you’re off.”
Of course, Sarah’s preparations are affected by the weather. “We haven’t had a cold winter so far, but there has been plenty of rain. In December we had eight inches, when we usually have four. If there is more rain and it stays reasonably warm, then I would worry that it could be
West Dean Gardens is open from February 1 (01243 811301; westdean. org.uk). Lullingstone Castle & the World Garden is open from April (01322 862114; lullingstonecastle.co.uk).
Wet-weather activities: Sarah Wain at West Dean, and Tom Hart Dyke at Lullingstone Castle, have plenty to keep them occupied