with Charlie Wilkins

The December Garden 2022

Cyclamen still grow at this hotel, however the display has gone downhill in recent years. This is how I remember them


Winter darkness swaddles the long evenings covering the garden with stillness Lack of light is the bane of gardeners in these high, northern latitudes. Anaemic, washed-out days follow each other in monotonous succession causing many to suffer depression and despair. Even when the clouds do part, the sun seems loath to heave itself above the horizon.
Eventually, when it  rises above the tiled expanse of my neighbours rooftops, and peeps through the narrow glazed columns of the church steeple, it remains wan and drawn.
With the ache of regret we now look back to summer and the heat of long days, and yearn once more for a fraction of their radiant light. But it’s gone and that’s the end of it.
For the best part of the four months to come, we will have to live in a world which is flowerless, damp, cold, and poorly lit. It’s recurrent, mundane, a fact of  life for most.  Conditions normally began to deteriorate early each October and continue through to sometimes the very end of May. Here on the outermost western tip of Europe, our green island will have to wait patiently until the encroaching darkness begins to wane.
Winter is therefore a  season of waiting. It requires confidence and belief that the malaise we suffer will not last forever. Though all appears dead and devoid of movement, there is, I believe,  always quite growth taking place. Even during the darkest days, gestation continues to occur. In the coldest soils, flower bulbs continue to strengthen for their future journey upwards towards the light and air. On frozen branches, observe if you will, how the terminal buds grow fatter with passing time, and silent seeds sown with confidence earlier, prepare for the amazing new growth which follows as days once again lengthen.
So the season of winter asks us  to live with that mystery, and to wait patiently for spring. And spring will indeed come! For just as every other season eventually departs, so too, will winter. It will of course return again when it is time, for each seasons entrance and departure is part of this great circle of life
Those among us who understand and accept this waiting really believe that winter is simply hiding temporarily, the vibrancy of life. I know and accept this for already, the hard noses of eager snowdrops can be felt through slippered feet! What a great thought and high hopes to fall asleep with.


Winter colour when it does appear- in the open hands of the yellow Mahonia, in the tatty Titian tints of witch hazels, or the flaming wands of dogwood-is the more arresting for its very paucity. For all that, it is the solid evergreens which hold sway at this time of the year and I am thankful now that variegated Hollies, small leaved Pittosporums (of which there are many), tightly-clipped box and glossy camellias were always high on my list of desirables.

I know an old country house turned hotel not far from Riverstown and Glammire, where neglect has been the order of the day. Perhaps this is symptomatic of the times we live in but whichever, it’s a sad state of affairs.The fine stone balustrades where guests wined and dined in the open during summer have in recent years crumbled and fallen. Its bog garden and ponds have silted up, the cypresses sagged, and the grand old,  castellated yew walk (which was unequalled in the country) has been overwhelmed by competition. And yet, the snowdrops (and cyclamen in season) of an earlier age have simply spread and spread, so that those who knew the hotel used to sneak in from far and near to see them in bloom. Today, security denies entrance so the early spring spectacle comes and goes without admirers. All except yours truly! I still  go back there every so often, unannounced, furtively, and cautious, armed with a camera and stick to battle the wild growth. Roll on early February!

Clear Hosta foliage in the garden before the worst  winter weather puts in an appearance. Left where they are, the rotting leaves will become home to slugs and snails of all kinds. Eggs will be laid and these will develop in springtime to haunt you for yet another season. Once cleared, top dress with manure (for preference) garden compost or commercial compost sourced.

Selective tree pruning carried out during winter will hardly spoil the canopy of remaining branches but bear in mind that not all trees can be pruned then, or when it becomes apparent. Older trees are more tolerant than others, but beech, it should be made known, will not sprout readily following severe pruning. I myself have flopped into that trap!
Never prune walnut trees in winter; they will bleed for days, even weeks. Prune these when in active growth and in full leaf. Cherries are another species which cannot be cut when the notion strikes the owner. These must be attended to only when their foliage is in strong growth for they have a proneness to verticillium wilt, when denuded of leaves. Even screens of the thuggish Leyland’s Cypress which blight the rural and urban landscape can become even more discordant and grotesque when subjected to severe cut-backs. Because they have no epicormic buds, a hideous stubby mixture of live and dead branches forever remain in full view. Better to remove these altogether I think, than look at such a desecrated absurdity.

As Christmas and yet another New Year approach I hope the year ahead will bring readers, as it has brought me, another satisfying period in their busy lives. My plants have taught me that life is a continuous circle, one of growing, maturing, and eventually one of rest.  Gardening has also given me bountiful days of fun, health, and immense knowledge of how things evolve. It has given me innumerable, loyal GRA readers, none of whom I would change for even the most desirable of ornamental plants. Best of all, it has given me laughter and tears and pictures of almost incredible beauty, unlike any I have ever seen on canvas or board. A Happy Christmas, and Joyous New Year, to all readers.