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The Garden in December

Here is what is happening in the garden in December…

As Christmas draws near the garden clear up continues, and house decoration and mulled wine is upon us.

garden in december

In the Dining Room shrubbery the one remaining Laurestinus has some flowers on, but at the time of writing, there are no other flowers in bloom. There are plenty of sweet rocket plants, which no doubt can be transplanted when this part of the garden is re-organised with the new yard development project. Down by the house the catmint is finally out of bloom. This is one of many catmints now on the market, there’s over 100 species and cultivars in the latest plant finder alone! This one is Six Hills Giant named after the famous nursery (set up 1906) of Clarence Elliott in Stevenage. In turn he named his nursery after six burial mounds which he knew when he grew fruit in South Africa..an interesting trail! In truth the plant, thought to be a form of N x faassenii, in turn itself a hybrid between two other species (N Mussinni and N nepetella) is not very eighteenth century at all, except that those two original species were introduced in Gilbert’s century. The plant, sometimes known as ‘Gigantea’, is twice as big as ‘faassenii’, so we are along way from a plant that Gilbert white would have known. In its favour, however, is the fact that the plant is long lived, eye catching and flowers over a long period- it’s been in its present position since at least the 1970’s: and now, I think we have more plants of it in the new six quarters design. The Nepeta White refers to as ‘Nep, or cat-mint, Nepeta major’ is noted on the 16th June 1766 in his Flora Selborniensis, whilst he was at Fyfield, and presumably in the wild: for this is Nepeta cataria, a plant we have grown in the pond garden. It’s not at all like its pretty blue flowered Six hills relative, it looks rather like a clump of nettles- I’m often asked when I take it to plant shows ‘why are you selling nettles?’-with tiny white flowers that look pinkish because of the tiny purple spots…technically it’s an Archaeophyte, which means it was probably introduced (medicinally used for obstructions of the womb!) before 1600 by our early ancestors. Before you skip to the next paragraph from all these random facts, I should point out that Gilbert White was the first person to positively identify this plant as growing in Hampshire (Fyfield) when he noted it in 1766. Enough of a digression I think!

Back to the garden. The tall Nicotiana by the house will, I think, after these hard frosts have succumbed, but up until then we were keeping it going so we could collect the seeds.

There are still lots of leaves to be collected from the Tulip tree in the six quarters- I think the tallest tree in the garden (apparently one of the fastest growing trees averaging 2-3 inches per year throughout its life)- it is a beautiful site bedecked in lovely yellow, but perhaps not so welcome as they fall everywhere- in the street, on the pavements, gutters, six quarters beds, and perhaps the worst, all over the plants in the plant sales area. When I was a young (ish) gardener one of my customers advised me that it was a waste of time picking up leaves until they were all down (usually after a hard frost) but if we did that with the tulip tree we’d all be knee deep in leaves by now! They are, of course, best picked up when wet, as they rot down more quickly- although they are much less work to collect when they are dry. I never think of leaf collection as a mindless chore- I just think of the marvellous leaf mould that’s produced once they are rotted down for 18 months in a simple netting leaf bin… all your woodland plants will love it! Idly looking few my range of gardening books (which is prey comprehensive, I must admit!) I see very few mention leaf mould. Miller in his 18th century garden dictionary , has eight pages describing leaves, and illustrates 99 leaf types: but never a mention of leaf mould- or composting, come to that! One last note on leaves; if you thought that all your leaf collecting was done by the early winter period think again- some ‘evergreens’ drop all their leaves in the early spring, like our Luccombe oak (Quercus x hispanica Lucombeana) on the main lawn outside Bell’s Library. Keep raking!

The annual garden has now been planted up with Hyacinths, Daffodils & Tulips, and the herb garden is reasonably tidy. We have begun to dig out the sections in the centre circle where the mint had been suffering from Mint rust, and replacing the soil from the top soil especially saved from the new operations in the car park. A job that must be done this month is the pruning of the vine: the royal horticultural society suggests November, but Thomas Hitt, in his Treatise of Fruit trees edition 3(1768) a book used by Gilbert White says ‘I have always observed that the best season for pruning vines in winter is about the latter end of January, or beginning of February, when the weather is dry; though it is customary to cut them immediately after their leaves are fallen off’ He goes on to say that those pruned earlier make weaker shoots. What he doesn’t talk about is the fact that if pruned too late, the stems will bleed badly- surely this cannot be good for the vine? On the other hand, cut too early, when the wood being soft and spungy’ as Hitt says ‘renders the next year’s shoots weak’. So I always say ‘before Christmas’ as a compromise. In our case it’s simply a matter of cutting back to a few buds each spur, our aim being to produce an attractive backdrop on the wall. If we were wanting larger fruit we could replace the horizontal shoots by tying down a couple of new vertical shoots from the centre each year , although Hitt’s method involves making the centre shoot snake up the wall and to prune back laterals off this: perhaps this is more suited to much taller walls.

A group of four hard working volunteers came from the University of Surrey and worked hard clearing part of the pond. We have no a good area of open water stretching between the dipping platforms which should work well visually for visitors and for groups of exploring children alike! The group also cleared another section of Blackthorn down at the bottom of the Ewel (Car Park) field an essential part of Stewardship scheme to encourage egg laying by the brown hairstreak butterfly. They started work too on removing the fence around the copse in the centre of the park.

garden in december

The fruit wall border has been planted with tulips and the park is now being grazed by sheep. Peter & Arnold have been working on preparing the new barrel seat on the mound: The old one had become unsafe after being moved down off the mound to be re-thatched. A replacement barrel was found by Andy, Peter & Arnold cut the hole in the side and moved & adapted the seat out of the old one so that it fits neatly in the new one. Peter has devised a new turntable mechanism, and with a little help from Mid Hants Mowers in welding, and the local blacksmith in providing sheet metal, we are heading towards a barrel seat that will actually turn as the old one used to! Exciting news! Many thanks to all involved in this innovative project.

In the kitchen garden is in good order- newly planted is a sizeable plot of garlic, a plant mentioned by Gilbert White: David Stuart sums up garlic rather neatly in his historical guide to the kitchen garden: ‘Garlic: a venerable and venerated plant ,is an essential flavouring for whole sections of the cuisine, yet is detested by many’ In recent years garlic production worldwide has increased, and it seems that the wakes is keeping up with that trend! Oh, and in case you were wondering, I love garlic! The Kitchen garden is gradually expanding so that we can provide more fresh fruit and vegetables for the tea parlour, and through Keith’s hard work, ably assisted by dedicated volunteers, this is working very well.

Great progress has been made by the contractors in the car park. The area, partially re-opened at the time of writing, now has been expanded with posts marking each car parking space: whether motorists will pay attention to this system, is, of course, another matter. Many trees have been removed, but they were low quality misshapen ones and will be replaced by some fine new trees and underplanting of the type found in nearby woods. The base for the new gardeners accommodation has now been put in place: it’s going to be two sheds with room for fruit and tool storage, and with power & water supplies. These sheds are, from latest information, going to be arriving in February. I hope sooner! Perhaps most exciting is the building of the base for our new 7m by 3m greenhouse! The last proper greenhouse in the Wakes garden fell or was pulled down in the early 1970’s !! (with the exception of a small structure temporarily erected whilst I was living at the wakes in 1980/81) 2017 should be a very exciting year for the garden team at the Wakes.

garden in december