What does a gardener do in winter?

In Tove Jansson’s Moomins in Winter, the Moomins go to bed at the first sign of snow and wake up when they hear the drips of the snow melting. They only bother getting up for Christmas because they get woken up. 

I think I am a spiritual Moomin. The moment the clocks go back, I can feel my heart sinking. I wouldn’t say I suffer from SAD, but winter is most definitely NOT my season. If it was filled with the kind of weather that the Moomins turn their back on – sparkling snow and blue skies – I might think differently. But in my part of the world, we mostly have grey skies, wind and a lot of rain (thinking about it, that’s mostly the weather all year round!). And I can’t do my favourite activity – gardening. I’d quite happily sleep through the whole thing, or just go and live in Australia for four months. But as I can’t do either of those, I’ve come up with a strategy…

1) Go outside, whatever the weather

The Courts Garden in early February

If the weather’s good I make sure I go outside straightaway – it’s amazing how quickly it can change. But even if it’s bad, I try to get out too. As the saying goes, that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. I realised that was resisting going outside as I was never warm enough. So I bought a pair of (fake) fur lined boots, which have been a game changer – I hate the cold feet you get in wellies. I’ve also bought some thermal underwear – a thin polo neck and some long johns from M&S (thank heavens we’re in lockdown and no one can see me) –which I wear under tracksuit bottoms (much warmer than jeans). And lastly a proper woolly hat, as I find wind and rain in my hair very annoying. If possible, I visit a garden. I particularly love visiting the Courts Garden in Holt, Wilts when it opens in February – there’s so much late winter colour.

2) Make the garden appealing in winter

Pansies don’t cope so well with harsh weather

I once interviewed a lovely lady called Olive Mason, owner of a beautiful garden called Dial Park in Worcestershire. Her garden looks fantastic in winter, so much so that it was a direct inspiration for a winter garden at nearby Ragley Hall. But Olive didn’t set out to plant a winter garden – she just wanted interest all year round. 

Inspired by Olive, it’s what I’ve tried to do in my own garden. While I like the ‘new perennial’ idea leaving attractive seedheads and grasses standing overwinter, it’s never really worked in my garden – the rain and wind means they collapse and go to mush. And after a certain time, I just get sick of the brown. So instead I have gone overboard on evergreens – box balls, yew pyramids, Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfennii, scented Sarcococca confusa and Viburnum tinus, climbers (Stauntonia) and ferns. I’ve also planted snowdrops, Cyclamen coum and hellebores under shrubs and around perennials. It gives enough colour here and there for me to want to venture outside and see what’s in flower. I also make sure the table on the patio near the house is filled with colour – if the weather is truly terrible, at least I can see that from the house. I plant mostly pots of violas – they do better than pansies in harsh weather.

Spend time in the greenhouse

My greenhouse homemade, drafty and tiny – about 2ft by 5ft – but it’s my happy place. Last autumn I sowed quite a few hardy annuals, including Ammi majus, cornflower and nigella (I’m never normally that organised – thank you, lockdown!). They grew surprisingly fast. I love looking at them, sitting quietly in their pots, looking green and fresh and biding their time until they’re ready to plant out.

Find another hobby

My first terrible attempt at printmaking. Don’t laugh!

In winter, I do quite relish the fact that nothing needs doing urgently in the garden. There is literally nothing that needs doing in January that can’t wait until February. It makes a nice change from permanently feeling like I’m behind with everything. That said, I do need something to do. My Mum told me about a woman whose garden she visited who gardened for six months of the year, and made quilts for the other six. I quite like that idea, although I’ve tried quilting and didn’t like it. I started a printmaking course last year and fell in love with it. So now I try and do that in the winter months, at the kitchen table. I’m not very good, but that doesn’t matter. Of course I end up producing mostly plant-inspired things – an added bonus is that it really makes you look closely at everything around you.

Force an early spring

Miniature irises snapped on 1 February last year

Mostly, winter for me is about forcing an early spring. In autumn, I go overboard on planting pots of bulbs that will flower in late winter, including tiny irises such as ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ and ‘Harmony’, crocus and miniature narcissi such as ‘Jetfire’. Come February, I also raid my local garden centre for cheap pots of Tete-a-Tete narcissi in flower – they’re really cheap and perfect for a shot of colour. By that time, the days are getting longer and spring feels closer: another winter survived.

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