My Garden this Week – 27th January 2013

Iris 'George'
Iris ‘George’

The garden has spent most of the week under several inches of snow.  Whilst this is boring to  look at the snow has insulated the emerging bulbs and perennials from the consistently low temperatures.  Come yesterday the temperatures lifted and returning home from a day out at Ashwood Nurseries I discovered my garden had returned to its greenish/brownish self.

I think there is something special about looking at the garden after snow has covered it for a week or more.  It is as if the emerging shoots are released in one go.  This morning I discovered my hellebores were starting to flower; tulip (yes there are a few not eaten by the badger), narcissus and snowdrops were shooting; new buds were appearing on various shrubs and shoots were starting to appear on some of my perennials.  Oh at the Fatsia that was looking pathetically limp over the last week is back to its former glory.


The garden is sodden and really I shouldn’t be walking on it especially having been told forcefully yesterday about the damage compaction does.  My excuse is that  I have waited two weeks to really get into the garden and every  where I walk is going to be dug up during this year or turned into paths so the damage is limited.  I spent a happy hour this morning checking the greenhouse and cold frames, opening them up to get some air and watering.  Delphinium were shooting in the cold frame and the alpine seeds are starting to germinate.  But despite the bright sun and the beautiful blue sky the wind was just too cold for any prolonged gardening.  My only other task was to scatter some slug pellets around the Ligularia shoots which already looked like they had been munched and to cover the plant with one of the lobster pot cloches to prevent the cat eating the pellets.

Hellebores ready for selling
Hellebores ready for selling

But I’m not down at this lack of gardening as I spent yesterday immersed in horticulture and it was fabulous.  I treated myself to a ticket for a lecture at Ashwood Nurseries by its owner John Massey.  I booked it well before Christmas, taking a gamble on the weather and it was touch and go on Friday whether it would be snowed off.  Luckily, well for me, the snow was further north.  I had chosen to go to the Hellebore lecture.  Ashwood is renown for its hellebore breeding programme which has been running for some 25 years.  We learnt that John Massey had started by talking to all the good breeders, including Helen Ballard who used to live not far from me.

There were about 40 of us attending the lecture which was held in a separate building adjacent to John’s house.  John went through how to cross-pollinate hellebores, which he says is very easy and I have to say I feel inspired to give it a go when I have a few more established.  He went through the various forms of hybrids they have breed over the years and then through all the species that exist and how their different qualities come through the breeding programme.  The talk was entertaining and incredibly informative.  I was surprised at the end of the talk when John offered to give us a tour of his garden  after we had adjourned for lunch – to good an opportunity to miss out on.

John Massey's winter garden
John Massey’s winter garden

After lunch and some plant buying we reconvened and spent a fascinating hour with John in his garden.  I learnt about pruning shrubs to give a transparent view of the garden by lifting the lower branches and removing crossing branches.  John talked about choosing a season for a border when planting it and focussing on that season, then to  look at adding interest in other seasons.  This is an approach I am trying to take to my garden since  I have tried borders with interest throughout the year and they could be termed by Christopher Lloyd as having measles they are so bitty.  Seeing the winter interest borders and even the summer borders has given me the confidence to go ahead with this approach.  The in season borders become the main focus and the out of season borders just the supporting act.

I was really bowled over by John’ winter border which had at least half a dozen if not ten witch hazels in it and it wasn’t that large a space.  John showed me how to keep the witch hazels in check by tip pruning whilst also letting them keep their natural shape.  Needless to say I ended up buying another witch hazel before I left the nursery – Aphrodite which smells divine.


Whilst I enjoyed the lecture the tour of John’s garden and the way he has developed the borders, added structure with various shrubs, trees and plants has really helped me to open  my eyes to the potential of the back garden and what I can achieve when I lift the lawn.  Not bad value for £12.50!!


32 Comments Add yours

  1. I hope you will write more about hellebores and how the different qualities come through. Adore the view of the winter border. My ‘Wisley Supreme’ witch hazel was frozen with ice for two days but is perky again this morning.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Marian
      I dont know if I will write more about hellebores, I wrote lots of notes but the sense I got was that when they cross-pollinate them it is really pot luck what comes out and they are often surprised.

  2. Helen, what an inspiring day you had. I’m already needing to put more hellebores in, they are so forgiving in extreme weather. Ashwood is on my list of nurseries to visit later this year. It sounds like you had an inspiring day and good value for money. We all need more days like that.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Nel
      Hellebores are forgiving. Mine have been covered in snow for a week and then up they pop with lots of lovely flowers all fresh and perfect.

  3. djdfr says:

    I was scratching around a bit today. Had the surprise of an anemone.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi djd – ooo an anemone, I dont think mine are showing any signs yet

  4. Sounds like a fabulous day. I would love to hear John Massey and see that garden, so much really useful stuff.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jason
      It was a great day. The garden is open on certain days during the year but to have a tour by John explaining the thinking behind each bit was extra special

    2. Well, I’ll certainly look into it if I find myself in the UK! (Never been, but some day …)

  5. Cathy says:

    What a great day out, Helen, and lucky for you it wasn’t cancelled. Seems to have been a useful talk by John and a nice surprise to be shown round his private garden too. I look forward to seeing a picture of Aphrodite!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Cathy
      I will try and photograph aphrodite for you – it is a sort of burnt orange colour, a nice contrast to ‘Arnold Promise’ that I already have

  6. pbmgarden says:

    Interesting post and great photos. I’ve recently concluded I need to concentrate on spring as the main focus of my garden. It’s liberating to not feel such pressure year-round.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi pmb – you are right trying to make the whole garden look great all year round is just too much for anyone but focuses on certain areas at certain times of the year is a step forward. My winter/spring garden is outside my living room so I can see the bulbs on a cold day

  7. Mark and Gaz says:

    A bargain, with that price you got superb advice, chance to shop, had a lovely day of activity, and got to see that lovely winter garden!

  8. I love the look of the winter garden, how inspiring. I also feel encouraged because I have been thinking about the various areas of the front garden in a similar way, having sections focused on particular seasons. There is so much I am itching to do, but the ground is sodden. I allowed myself to lift some grass but no chance of moving any more plants or putting new ones in the ground until we have had some dry days! Am excited to see what you do in your own back garden Helen, you are fairly fizzing with excitement.

  9. Anna says:

    ‘George’ is a fine fellow – a welcome sight I would imagine after all the snow. Your day out at Ashwood Nurseries sounds like a fabulous experience Helen. That bed with the contemplative statue looks so calming – I wonder what lis underneath the gravel waiting to emerge. This may be of interest :

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Anna – I have to admit to George growing in the greenhouse rather than in the garden

  10. Not bad at all-well worth it! That winter garden is gorgeous! I’d love to learn how to tip prune witch hazels. How nice of him to invite you all back to tour his garden and continue the lecture.

  11. Nice to see the snow melting and the bulbs are growing and blooming…

  12. Holleygarden says:

    I think your garden has more blooms than mine right now – even with you having snow! I am so impressed with your greenhouse! Gorgeous! I am trying to design a winter garden area, too. Witch hazel just went on my list!

  13. Yvonne Ryan says:

    what a lovely day for a plataholic!!

  14. Christina says:

    Sounds like a really inspirational day! I like the idea of a border per season, I certainly agree that it helps focus interest, I am already trying this by additions and removals in the borders. Christina

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Christina – I have been doing the same editing borders to bring seasonal interest.

  15. Owen says:

    How funny- I only ordered some hellebores for my mums birthday from Ashwood on friday – these are her favourite plant (got a wee bit carried away with ordering them and choked abit when i added up the bill!- hope she likes them!). I love witch hazels but with so many to choose from just not sure how to pick! Love the Cornus midwinter fire in one of your photos- what a beautiful plant! Sounds like you had a wonderful day- Ashwood is just that bit too far for my mum to get too from Dorset- but will tell her you have been!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Owen
      Oh you must try and visit Ashwoods next January for their hellebore tours, you and your Mum would love it.

  16. hillwards says:

    Lovely glimpses of those gardens; great inspiration. I wonder about adding a second witchhazel here; a yellow one as we have the red Diane which I love, but there is a wonderful glow to the yellows (heck and the marmalade-coloured ones too! Would three be too many?!!!)

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Sarah
      Oh yes a second witch hazel is a must – a third, well I saw at least half a dozen planted together and they look amazing but am going back in summer to see what they look like then

  17. Winter aconite out already! I went looking for mine the other day – not a sign yet, though I think I must be south of you. What a lovely day – I like the border planting advice too. It’s too easy to lose the plot (hah! sorry) when planting.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Helen
      Well I’m sorry to upset you but I saw masses of Aconites on Saturday at Kingswinford which is even further up the country!!!

    2. Uh-oh. I wonder if they rot off in waterlogged clay soil?

  18. Oh well at least you found some positivity in the horrible snow. It was just a horrible nuisance to most of us!

  19. Shirley says:

    Thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed reading of your talk and tour. I’ve always like the idea of cross polinating my hellebores but I don’t have that many varieties – I like the idea of pot luck. I also liked “I learnt about pruning shrubs to give a transparent view of the garden by lifting the lower branches and removing crossing branches.” That is someting I do quite often and it really does make a difference in views through the garden especially when the area is small. A grand day out you had here 😀

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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