Gar­den­ing David Wheeler


The hardi­est of gar­den­ers can dis­miss Novem­ber as a dud month. Still, a visit to a nurs­ery or gar­den cen­tre at this time of the year re­veals a cor­nu­copia of de­sir­able plants that flour­ish dur­ing the chill.

Many de­cid­u­ous trees and shrubs will have dis­carded their fo­liage by now, leav­ing in their wake colour­ful or oth­er­wise in­ter­est­ing bark. The low­grow­ing dog­woods ( Cor­nus) fam­ily be­stows a myr­iad of de­lights, with vi­brant, woody stems, shaded from the deep­est wine red ( C. alba ‘We­ston­birt’) and pur­ple-black ( C. a. ‘ Kes­sel­ringii’) to a host of fiery or­ange/red hues ( C. a. ‘Anny’s Win­ter Or­ange’, ‘ C. san­guinea ‘Mid­win­ter Fire’ and more) that seem to smoul­der when caught in low win­ter sun­shine. To keep any of th­ese within bounds – grow­ing, say, no taller than three feet – the stems should be chopped off close to ground level just as the leaf buds be­gin to swell in early spring.

Among the smaller-grow­ing ever­green and semi-ev­er­greens are the daphnes and sar­co­coc­cas, both bear­ing rich­lyper­fumed win­ter flow­ers. Among the best of the daphnes (but bear in mind their tox­i­c­ity, if ac­ci­dently in­gested, and that their sap can ir­ri­tate the skin) is Daphne bholua ‘Jac­que­line Pos­till’ – erect to about five feet with pur­ple-pink buds pro­duc­ing highly-fra­grant white flow­ers. It car­ries the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety’s Award of Gar­den Merit, sig­ni­fy­ing out­stand­ing all-round qual­i­ties. It’s de­rived from seed pro­duced by D. b. ‘Ghurka’, distinc­tive in its bright tan bark with mauve-pur­ple buds that open to pale pink flow­ers be­tween Jan­uary and March. Com­ing from the 10,000ft Milke Danda Ridge in Nepal, it’s no stranger to harsh weather.

The sar­co­coc­cas (sweet or Christ­mas box) also orig­i­nate from that part of the world – and south-east­ern China and the Hi­malayas. Slow-grow­ers, they have nar­row, glossy, dark green leaves that al­ways look good. But in win­ter months they shoot into the gar­dener’s Top Ten, be­cause of their long suc­ces­sion of small, white, scented flow­ers.

There’s scent aplenty, too, from the win­ter-flow­er­ing hon­ey­suck­les, es­pe­cially cream-flow­ered Lon­icera pur­pusii ‘Win­ter Beauty’ and L. fra­grantis­sima, known some­times by the com­mon names Chi­nese hon­ey­suckle, kiss-me-at-the-gate, sweet breath of spring or Jan­uary jas­mine. But that jas­mine as­so­ci­a­tion can be mis­lead­ing at this time of the year; it shouldn’t be con­fused with the bright forsythi­ayel­low, true jas­mine ( Jas­minum nud­i­flo­rum) – yes, florif­er­ous in the depths of win­ter, but lack­ing any­thing to please the ol­fac­tory sys­tem.

Closer to the ground are the win­ter­flow­er­ing pan­sies (they, too, can be scented) and a great tribe of cy­cla­men, with var­ied fo­liage and ‘shut­tle­cock’ flow­ers of the purest white, through ev­ery hue of candy pink, to dark and mys­te­ri­ous, vina­ceous reds.

I buy cy­cla­men when they’re flow­er­ing and keep them for sev­eral weeks as in­door dec­o­ra­tion, be­fore plant­ing them out in the gar­den where, in semi-shade, they per­form all over again in suc­ces­sive win­ters, in­creas­ing all the while, mak­ing a cheery link to Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary’s mon­u­men­tal snow­drop pa­rade.

A Novem­ber visit to a good gar­den cen­tre also of­fers much for those with­out gar­dens. Ranks of African vi­o­lets are avail­able, as are Cape prim­roses ( Strep­to­car­pus), scent­less but seen now in in­tox­i­cat­ing shades of pale and indigo blue, bur­gundy red, as­sorted pinks and un­sul­lied whites. Alas, too ten­der to be pen­sioned off in the gar­den, they can, though, with min­i­mal at­ten­tion, be kept go­ing for years in cool porches or on sun­less win­dow sills.

To me, fra­grance is para­mount at this time of the year. If I’ve re­mem­bered to ‘force’ a few bulbs the re­wards are mag­nif­i­cent: huge shots of pure colour and more se­duc­tive whiffs than any­thing from Jermyn Street’s finest per­fumers.

The in­tense indigo of the Cape primrose

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