The garden in February
Kari-Astri Davies is hoping to fire up her garden with colour and finding treasures in the flower beds
THIS WINTER, STARLINGS have been roosting in the trees and hedges around us. Some mornings, a flock feeding in an adjoining field will take off every so often with a collective ‘whoomph’: the sound of hundreds of wings beating at once. Then, calmly, they will drop down again to their feeding; a mass of lacquered, nodding and bobbing bodies.
Cornus, or dogwoods, with well-coloured stems, are effective in the winter garden, particularly when the low sunlight catches them. Soon, the vibrant colours will fade as sap starts to rise, but not quite yet.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘A Year’s Carols: February’
A native shrub of southern woodlands, the leaves of red-stemmed Cornus sanguinea turn wine red before falling. Cultivar ‘Midwinter Fire’ is a showier confection of pink and pale orange twiggy growth. In autumn, the leaves turn delicate shades of yellow, green and blush pink. This shrub draws the eye, ablaze against the winter-drab hornbeam hedge. Each year in March, I cut it back, and it responds with at least 3ft (91cm) of new growth and running suckers.
I have been contemplating an unpromising weedy space by a large hazel tree. It is in shade, and the soil underneath is dry for six months of the year. Looking for lighter-stemmed dogwoods, I found Cornus sericea ‘Bud’s Yellow’, which seems to be a bit brighter than the pale green ‘Flaviramea’. Ordering three from a nursery, I was told that, unfortunately, on inspection, rabbits had nibbled all except one of them to a nub. I took the unnibbled one and sourced a couple more elsewhere. Rather than repeat myself, but aiming for similar colouring to ‘Midwinter Fire’, I went for ‘Winter Flame’. I cannot yet say whether or not there is any significant difference between the two.
This cornus group is underplanted with autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium, late-winter-flowering C. coum, ferns, snowdrops and small, flat-faced narcissus ‘Minnow’. The area is mulched with chipped prunings to build up the soil, retain moisture and keep the weeds down. Once established, the cornus will be pruned to restrict height and encourage new, freshly coloured growth.
“Wan February with weeping cheer, Whose cold hand guides the youngling year”
While flowering plants may be sparse in the winter garden, there are gems to lighten dour days. Iris unguicularis, the Algerian iris, is one of these treasures, choosing to flower through the winter. Scented, crystalline-petalled flowers nestle amid slightly scruffy hummocks of evergreen foliage.
Writing in 1914, the well-known gardener E A Bowles describes picking up to 50 iris buds a week from six plants between October and March. He suggested conditioning the flowers by putting them up to their heads in water for a while, before arranging them in dinner table posies.
This rhizomatous perennial iris requires a bit of protection, warmth and good drainage to thrive. Thereafter, “Patience seems to be the only manure these irises need,” wrote Bowles. “Look out for molluscs, which are partial to the flowers,” he also noted.
I grow the lightly violet-shaded, white ‘Walter Butt’ tucked up against a sun-warmed wall. A white form, ‘Alba’, I lost. ‘Mary Barnard’ is a showy dark violet.
If the garden does not have a spot to suit I. unguicularis, the perky little yellow I. danfordiae and the slightly later-flowering I. reticulata, planted in pots, provide a charming wintry iris flower ‘fix’. These bulbous irises are best planted new each year in the autumn.
Some clumps of named snowdrops in the garden have become congested, and down in the copse, I want to extend the flowering area of single-flowered Galanthus nivalis. I will dig up bigger clumps as the flowers go over, subdivide, and pop back in where I want them, watering in well.
When the shoots start to push through next year, there will no doubt be some happy surprises, as I often forget where I have planted bulbs.
In late February, I will sow seeds of hardier annuals, including sweet peas, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, and eschscholzia poppies.
“It is a pleasure to a real lover of Nature to give winter all the glory he can, for summer will make its own way, and speak its own praises”