Wednesday, 10 December 2008


Our autumn border in frost.

Out on my bike this afternoon, after beating my head against the wall, trying to write a rushed piece all morning, I was enchanted to discover that ice was still covering the puddles.  What chilly joy!  What toe-tingling, ear-nipping, breath-steaming delight to have a December day that really feels like winter!  It almost enables you to forget climate change and think about chillblains and burst pipes.  (But I expect  you're all too young to remember those!)

You can't imagine what utter jolly delight it is, on your bike, to go whizzing  through frozen puddles, hearing a satisfying crunch.  Not only do have the spine-tingling naughtiness of smashing something beautiful, but you also know that no one else can do the same.  You've grabbed the puddle's cherry, as it were, and that's that.  All that remains are shards of muddy glass, littering the road.

Frost has been nicely timed, this year.  I got my dahlias lifted, at last, just before the promise of overnight temperatures below minus 5C - that's, erm, 23Fahrenheit for friends across the puddle.  (By the way, that's quite cold for England) - and managed to get part my cache of well rotted, friable compost barrowed and spread.  

Helleborus foetidus

That, in itself, creates a dilemma of conscience and principle.  Let me explain.  For years, now, I've ranted and railed about the hateful habit of putting the autumn garden to bed by cutting everything herbaceous down to ground level.  It's a pernicious practice for a gamut of reasons: it reduces cover for wildlife; it cuts down the amount of feed available for seed-eating birds; it exposes the perennials to the full rigour of winter and, above all, a shorn border look miserable and depressing and unnatural and brown and dull and hateful.

So my borders tend to resemble the picture at the top of this post.  Hardly surprising since the picture is one of my borders!  And in frost, or snow they look lovely.  They don't look bad earlier in autumn, either, when the plants are gently subsiding into their annual Liebestod - if that's how you spell it.

Osmanthus delavayi

But how the heck are you supposed to barrow heaps of compost among moribund perennials, or over them or between them without making a disgusting mess?  I've tried the discreet forkful here, handful there approach but that takes for ever.  In desperation, I've pushed wheelbarrows over and kicked the stuff about.  That, at least, gives one more exercise, but it doesn't get the good stuff spread.

Buddleja 'Lochinch'

And another thing: what do you do about plants that get so wind-bashed or flop so much that they just look plug ugly?  The purist in my says 'watch, observe, rejoice in the decay, accept the entropy, the return to chaos.'  But the artist in me – no, that's bragging, I've as much artistic sense as funky gibbon –  the fragment of aesthetic sense which still lurks in my head says 'remove the offending limb for the good of the rest.'  

Sorry, I'm writing even more nonsensical drivel than usual.  The pictures are frost on leaves or catkins - pictures of compost look horrible, however you dress them up.  

Corylus avellana 'Contorta' 

This time last year I was - and do hope James doesn't resent me for scobbing his idea of doing this - I was watching the film Of Human Bondage with Leslie Howard and, for once in her acting life, a surprisingly wooden Bette Davis.  (It's  not good memory - I've just checked my diary.)

I'm listening to L'Enfance du Christ' by Berlioz.


  1. Ah Chilblains! Waiting for the school bus in the cold always brought them on for me - wintergreen ointment and the fascination of peeling skin (sorry for those eating their suppers!) Now I have invested in those Japanese thermal longjohns currently advertised on the Tube (Bakerloo line!) and am toasty warm.

    Lovely frosty photos and great looking border even in the winter - I'm afraid here we just cut back hard then work the volunteers on mulch-barrow-pushing duty - maybe if we were open through the winter we'd keep the stems for photographers too.

  2. What fabulous pictures. That frosty border looks so beautiful. I sympathise with the mulching dilemma. I don't have as big a garden as you, so I either throw spadefuls optimistically into any gaps between clumps of plants, or use a tub trug thingie to pour it into little heaps that can then be levelled with a bit of judicious poking. I should point out that both these techniques have resulted in visits to the chiropractor.

  3. "keep the stems for photographers", oooh, that Pete Free is so cutting...

    BE CAREFUL on your bike in the icy puddles. Last year I had to go to A&E and have a head xray after I slid my bike in a spectacular roadside arc on a pile of wet leaves, banging my head on a kerbstone with a spine-chilling crack, and leaving me with a black eye that had to be explained to every passerby who nevertheless gave me pitying looks revealing their unrepentant belief in my domestic-violence-denying ways.

    How come we don't have ads for thermal longjohns on the Picadilly Line? London is so random

  4. Behave would you? James does a horrible job of it. It is nice to visit your neck of the woods and hear about crunching puddles. Love the first pic of all the frosty seed heads.

  5. Emma - not intended to be cutting! It's just with no visitors to enjoy them and with needing to get work done in the quiet times, the old stuff might as well get cut back.

    I have of course been taking photos myself - but I don't count in the grand scheme of things!

  6. Your frosty photos are delightful! And I do remember chillblains and frozen (and burst) pipes! :) I remember, on very cold nights, my Dad would leave the bathtub taps on, creating a thin stream of water, barely more than steady drips, but it would keep the water moving in the pipes just enough to prevent them from freezing. What a neat memory. :)

  7. Your first pic is the best PR for not doing the scorched earth thingy every autumn. I do not winter clean my garden either but when something offends me, esthically or otherwise, I remove it. You don't have to be a purist in everything IMO. ;-)

    BTW next time use a hammer instead of your head to do some wall whatsits. It's easier and less painful.

  8. You can't imagine what utter jolly delight it is, on your bike, to go whizzing through frozen puddles, hearing a satisfying crunch I don't need to imagine it, and it *is* fin. I also like riding through piles of crunchy leaves, but the ice is more satisfying, innit?
    ~ Monica

  9. All these gardening issues and all I can think is - 'What if the ice is solid?'.


  10. -5, oh my. If this keeps up, we're all going to have to chip in to get you a Union Suit - red of course. It was -46 in Saskatoon yesterday - many foolish souls photographed without their hats explaining how they were having to layer-up.
    You have some of the loveliest frost photos.

  11. You won't need to deliver compost anywhere if you make it on the spot ie wait until your herbaceous stuff is over (either no longer attractive or it's spring) and jump on it. Leave it then to rot in situ. No removing, no barrowing. Save your compost heap compost for mixing in with soil when you plant - this buries it too, meaning weed seeds don't matter.
    The jumping is quite good exercise too.

  12. Hey PMN, Its your little green friend here... Italy then Australia... How do I apply to be the help for these trips? (Seriously?!) sounds incredible and exciting... Enjoy it!