Hunkering down

January and February are months to endure rather than enjoy I always think and with the extra requirement to shut ourselves away for lockdown, this post Christmas period seems more challenging than ever. That said, there is a lot to be thankful for and with the arrival of snow over the weekend we have the rare delight of a wintry scene at Cressing which is truly beautiful.

For once, having no visitors or volunteers is a blessing as the pure, untrodden snow remains pristine a little longer. Structure in a winter garden is such an important part of good design, as nicely demonstrated by these pictures taken by Pete over the weekend of the Bay estrade, the platform, fountain and box hedging of the maze.

Other areas of the site are shown off to good effect in the snow too, particularly around the moats where the reflections on the water, the blackness of the winter stems and the whiteness of the icy conditions make for a dramatic contrast.

Weather like this makes it feel as if time stands still. One can imagine a seventeenth century farm worker gazing across at the granary and seeing much the same as we do today.

I always feel sorry for but also admire the hardy winter flowers that dare to brazen it out at this time of year and provide us with pinpoints of colour in an otherwise monochrome scene.

Here we have winter aconites (Aranthis hyemalis) struggling to keep their heads above snow but giving the impression of tough resilience against all odds at the same time.

So, how do plants cope with the snow and the freezing winter weather? There are many strategies they have developed over the millennia and different plants have evolved different techniques. Deciduous plants go dormant, losing their leaves to conserve energy and living off the nutrients they have stored up in their roots. Evergreens continue to photosynthesise but at a much slower rate and they tend to have thick waxy coatings on their leaves or needles which reduce water loss.

What about the snow that is covering our winter aconites? It actually acts as an insulating layer, protecting from harsh winds and creating pockets of air around the plant and preventing the ground from freezing. Like an igloo, the snow protects against the harshest elements of the weather. Many winter flowering plants hug the ground like the aconites and the winter cyclamen (Cyclamen coum). If they stuck their heads too high above the parapet they would be more likely to be swept away by fierce winter winds.

Us poor gardeners don’t have any of these clever adaptations and I for one have to resort to copious layers of warm clothing and a hot water bottle!

Snow on the ground makes it very difficult for gardening and it tends to be a time when we retreat to the potting shed to sharpen tools or start the first of the seed sowing. The vegetable beds look pretty bleak and lifeless at the moment but it won’t be long before the new growing season is under way and we need to be ready for it. Indoor sowing is the only option available right now, but we have onions, peppers, chillis, aubergines, leeks, cauliflower and cabbages coming on in the greenhouse for planting out as soon as the conditions improve. There are a few crops that shrug off the winter weather and can be relied upon to give us the first tasty veg of the new season, giving that all important promise and expectation of what’s coming next we gardeners thrive on. Broad beans, garlic, overwintered onions and purple sprouting broccoli are among the things holding the fort at this time of year and they are all doing well on the plot.

Before snow stopped play there was plenty of work to keep myself, Alison, Paula and Pete busy even though it was the wet and muddy variety. Some of you may be aware of the clump of trees next to the Barley barn. Most of these are a variety called the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) or ‘Tree of Hell’ as it is called in some places!

Attractive though it may be, this introduced species originating from China is an invasive plant that is causing a lot of damage in some parts of Europe. Widely planted as a garden ornamental it has moved into the environment by seed dispersal and through the dumping of excess material. It also spreads rapidly into dense thickets by suckering and this has happened with the ones at Cressing, with strong colonies forming on both banks of the moat behind. Attempts to control it in the past by cutting have simply resulted in even more vigorous growth added to which it can release toxic compounds into the ground which suppress other vegetation in the surrounding area.

This winter, while we are very quiet in terms of visitors and bookings, seemed like a good opportunity to tackle it with a more effective programme of control.

Cutting down was followed with treating the stumps with stump killer.

Any material suitable for shredding was loaded onto the Gator and taken to the yard. The chippings make an ideal top up material for the bark paths in the veg garden though we wouldn’t risk using them on the beds themselves. The remainder will be burnt or used to make log pile shelters for insects and small mammals.

Some of the smaller stumps could be dug out but this is where the mud came in. Struggling with wet, cold Essex clay doesn’t rate among my top ten fun things to do in February, despite the smile on my face!

It is unusual for us to work in this area of the garden but it has the advantage of giving views of the buildings from angles we don’t usually see, and very grand they look too.

Construction of the second new polytunnel is the other job on our priority list. The wet and mud has been our biggest obstacle here too, but good progress has been made and we are confident it will be up and ready in time for the new herb plugs to arrive in March.

Watching the construction videos supplied by the manufacturer suggests this should be a one or two day project but in our case slow and steady has been the motto (with plenty of learning from our mistakes along the way!). A real team effort.

January is always the month our thoughts turn to pruning and coppicing. Hazel coppicing is done on a rotation of between 5 and 7 years, selecting the tallest and most vigorous specimens each time.

This may look like brutal treatment but in fact it is a way of rejuvenating the plant, encouraging strong new growth from the remaining stool and resulting in more vigorous and long lived plant in the long run. Coppicing in this way provides strong straight stems which are valuable material in the garden for staking and making supports for climbing plants. The green netting around the stool is to protect against the nibbling of hungry rabbits and muntjac deer who love browsing the new shoots as they emerge.

The willow beds must also be coppiced at this time of year but in this case every plant must be cut to the stumps to avoid them turning into a forest of willow trees!

The long, straight rods produced by these plants provides us with valuable colourful weaving material once it has been graded to size and set out to dry for several months.

The other useful function of our willow bed is to provide a windbreak for our fruit growing area and this winter we have extended the bed to the end of the plot, giving extra protection and an even greater selection of willow varieties for our weaving projects.

The use of plastic ground sheeting is to prevent weed competition for the developing willow plants in the first few years. Once they are four or five years old they will be strong enough to compete with grass and weeds and the ground cover plastic can be removed.

So, while you are all at home waiting for the retreat of winter, the vaccines and normal life to return, spare a thought for all the flora and fauna that has no choice other than to hunker down and make the best of it. This fox, caught on camera at Marsh Farm has thought of an innovative way to keep warm – his very own sheepskin rug!

Keep warm, keep safe and see you soon.


A new look

We are delighted to be posting from our shiny, new look website. Take a good look around and see what you think. We hope you like it and find it easier to use. We have Mark Townsend to thank for his countless hours of patient tweaking and re-tweaking to get us to this point and we are delighted with the result. Thank you Mark.

The new site allows us to add video to the blog, so we can invite you all into the garden to share some of the beautiful sights and sounds we have enjoyed recently. Follow me to take a look at the fountain…..

Rebeca practises her film making….hmmm!

Now you will all need to watch out when I whip my camera out of my pocket!

This month we have seen the first frosty weather of the season and some wonderful sunny autumn days. There are still plenty of leaves to be cleared up but it feels like we are winning the battle with more leaves off than on.

The fruit of the medlar, (Mespilus germanica) is ripe and ready for harvest but this strange fruit has largely fallen out of popularity since its heydey in medieval times. They were equally popular in Victorian times when affluent households laid down jars of medlar jelly as a Christmas conserve.

Looking like a small apple with a rough, russeted skin and flared at the calyx end giving them a bizarre and unique appearance, as if the birds have already been pecking at them. Their strange outer shape gave rise to some rather bawdy and uncomplimentary nicknames and their reputation becomes no more appealling when you hear they need to be ‘bletted’ or left until the verge of rotting before eating. Following the long wait you might be expecting something wonderful when you finally get to open the medlar up, your fruit spoon at the ready, to find…..but what you find is a rather brown and mushy interior!

A well bletted medlar

And the taste? Hard to describe but think of a very thick apple sauce, perhaps with a hint of lemon. If that doesn’t tempt you, maybe cooking them into medlar jelly (which is very nice) or for those of you interested in historical authenticity, how about this simple recipe for a tart, dating back to 1660, from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook: “Take medlars that are rotten, strain them, and set them on a chaffing dish of coals, season them with sugar, cinamon and ginger, put some yolks of eggs to them, let it boil a little, and lay it in a cut tart; being baked scrape on sugar.”

If you want to have a go, we have plenty to spare!

Medlars ripe and ready for harvest

The end of the day comes quickly now and can sneak up on us when we are trying to get the last jobs done before home time. We haven’t resorted to the head torches yet, but are getting pretty close! But one advantage of the shortening days is we get to see some fantastic sunsets:

Looking back to the visitor centre from the community garden

During daylight hours our preoccupation has been preparing the gardens for winter: taking in the tender plants, sheltering the ones that hate the wind and wet and lifting containers off the ground to protect them from frost damage. The time has come to tuck up our willow sculptures, stowing them safely in the dry of the well house where they are safe from the worst of the winter weather. They have been socially distanced in the garden all this while so now they now have a chance to catch up and keep each other company!

With the lovely sunsets and bright sunny days reminding us of the joys of winter, the significant autumn rainfall brings some of the horrors too – wet, sticky Essex clay! Just in time for me to decide we need to start work constructing the second polytunnel! Despite the mud, the wet and the slime, the team showed their usual enthusiasm and determination and before we knew it new polytunnel number two was well on the way and the structure secured firmly in the ground (this Essex clay can be useful at times!). In this polytunnel we hope to grow a range of our own herbs and other Cressing plants for sale next year. We hope to maximise sustainable and environmentally friendly practices including the use of peat free compost and recyclable plant pots.

Despite going into lockdown number 2 there has been plenty to keep us busy in the gardens and people are still visiting, albeit in smaller numbers.

Bed preperation in the no dig garden kept us busy for one morning this week. Here Alison treads carefully as she lays yet more cardboard and straw on the patch destined for next year’s pumpkins. It is like making a big flat compost heap on the ground, hopefully a thick enough layer to suppress the underlying weeds until we can get things growing in the spring. The bed in the top right of this picture was treated exactly the same way a couple of years ago and the results are impressive. Takes a lot of cardboard to get it going though!

Alison practising her Strictly manoeuvres!
I knew those straw bales would come in handy
Our compost cake: cardboard, straw and a sprinkling of grass and leaf mowings – yum!

Produce for the veg barrow is getting harder to find, but we put out what we can and it is still proving popular. This week we had parsnips, squashes, leeks, peppers and chillies.

Tasty autumn veg from our plot.

At this time of year it seems there is a competition going on between the leaves and the berries to produce the most vivid colours. The colouring up of leaves and their eventual fall is triggered by hormone changes in the tree and signifies its preparation for preserving moisture and energy during the winter months. The colours are more spectacular some years than others, largely as a response to weather conditions.

  • Cold nights: low temperatures destroy chlorophyll so the green leaf fades to yellow, but if temperatures stay above freezing, anthocyanin production is enhanced and the leaves take on a red colour.
  • Dry weather: sugars become concentrated in the leaves, more anthocyanin is produced and consequently leaves are redder.
  • Bright sunny days: although the production of new chlorophyll stops in autumn, photosynthesis can still occur on sunny autumn days, using the remaining chlorophyll. Sugar concentration increases, more anthocyanin is produced and the leaves are redder.

The bright colours of autumn berries are there for a totally different reason. Berries play an essential role in the life of an ecosystem attracting insects and birds which in turn spread the plants seeds. 

One of the most striking berries in our garden at the moment are those of the Gladdon Iris (Iris foetidissima)

It is one of only two native Irises, the other being the yellow iris (Iris pseudocorus). These striking seeds burst open from their pods at this time of year and stay on the plant for much of winter. One of the common names for this plant is stinking iris, due to the unpleasant smell of the leaves when crushed, which is sometimes described as ‘beefy’, giving rise to yet another common name, roast beef!

Another stunning plant for its bright colour at this time of year is the common dog rose (Rosa canina), and its shiny bright red hips, much adored by the birds.

Rose hips have a sweet, yet tangy, flavour and can be used dried, fresh or preserved for future use. Steeping them to make rose hip tea is a common way that rose hips are used, making not only a nicely flavoured tea but also one with good vitamin C content. They can also be used to make jams, jellies, syrups and sauces.

While there are less fresh flowers to pick for indoor arrangements from now on, there is still plenty in the garden to decorate our houses and cheer us up during these bleak times. As well as the bright berries already mentioned, many flowers, grasses and seedheads dry to wonderful muted tones and combine beautifully to remind us of the great outdoors all winter long. Even better, you don’t need to change the water in the vase! Here are some I have at home with our Cressing Temple dried flowers, along with a bowlful of Cressing Temple gourds.

Winter Wildlife spotlight

Eastern grey squirrel

Native to North America, the grey squirrel was brought to Victorian Britain as an ornamental species by the aristocracy. Today, these highly intelligent and adaptable animals can be seen in woodlands, parks and gardens across the country.

It is probably over simplistic to say that grey squirrels have caused the demise of red squirrels. It is true that grey squirrels are hardier than their red cousins and can live in a wider range of habitats, which gives them a significant advantage. It is also true that grey squirrels can carry a virus, which appears not to affect them, while it can kill reds.

Red squirrels have endured much misfortune, largely at the hands of people. They declined to near extinction in the eighteenth century because of deforestation and more were introduced from the continent. In the nineteenth century, forest plantations reached maturity and so red numbers leapt. This, in turn, led to them being killed by specially formed Squirrel Clubs who were paid a bounty, and hundreds of thousands of the ‘pests’ were killed. And that was all before the grey squirrel arrived. Although numbers have declined sharply in the UK, globally, red squirrel populations are not threatened.

There are now some 2.5 million grey squirrels in the UK, compared to 160,000 native red squirrels. The majority of the red squirrels are now found in Scotland, Wales and North East England, with smaller populations in places like the Isle of Wight and Norfolk (Thetford Chase).

Squirrels are amazing creatures, they can leap 10 times their body length and turn their ankles 180 degrees to face any direction when climbing.

The hind legs of squirrels are double-jointed, which gives them the ability to run up and down trees very quickly. They can fall from 30 meters high, without hurting themselves.

Squirrels can eat their own body weight every week.

With 285 species of squirrels, they can be found in every continent except Antarctica and Australia.


As well as the glorious autumn colours at this time of year many trees are producing their nuts/seeds. Can you identify these common species? If you’d like a clue there’s a list of species given after the last photo!

Tree 1
Tree 2
Tree 3
Tree 4
Tree 5
Tree 6
Tree 7
Tree 8

In no particular order the trees shown are:

  • Oak (Quercus robur)
  • Hazel (Corylus avellana)
  • Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
  • Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa)
  • Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
  • Sycamore ( Acer pseudoplatanus)
  • Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
  • Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)
Answers to the last quiz

In the last blog the quiz was all about hedgehogs. Out of the following facts about hedgehogs one was not strictly true:

  • Baby hedgehogs leave the nest after three weeks, by which time their spines have hardened, their eyes are open and they are able to follow their mother in search of food.
  • Apart from worms, insects and snails, hedgehogs also eat frogs eggs, lizards, mice and even snakes
  • Hedgehogs hibernate all winter
  • Hedgehogs are immune to certain plant poisons. After chewing these plants they lick their spines, covering them with the toxin. This is thought to protect them from predators.
  • There are fifteen species of hedgehog found across Europe, Asia and Africa
  • Hedgehogs can swim

Hedgehogs in warmer climatic zones appear to be able to manage quite well without hibernating. If there is enough food and the air temperature is not too low, hedgehogs need not hibernate. Most hedgehogs seem to wake up fairly frequently during their hibernation but rarely leave their nests. These arousals last a day or two and, although generally unprompted, they may be caused by a disturbance or unexpectedly hot weather.

Jobs for the week

Lift and store dahlias

In mild areas dahlias can be left in the ground over winter. To be absolutely sure of getting them through the winter though you need to lift, dry and store the tubers. Cut the stems back to about 10cm from ground level. Lift the tubers and shake or rinse off all soil. Stand them upside down in a cool, dry place for a couple of weeks so that they dry off thoroughly. Store them for the winter in boxes of dry, peat-free compost, making sure the crowns of the tubers aren’t buried in compost.

Plant tulips

By planting tulips late, after the other spring-flowering bulbs are in, there is a better chance of preventing the bulbs being infected with the fungal disease, tulip fire.

Make leafmould

Autumn leaves can be collected up and used to make leafmould – a great mulch or soil conditioner. Place the leaves into a bin liner, moisten them if they are dry, then pierce holes in the bag with a knife or garden fork, tie the top loosely and stack the bags out of sight for up to two years.

Prune climbing roses

The new growth on roses will be more flexible and easier to tie into position at the moment. First remove any dead, damaged or diseased stems. Then tie in shoots that can extend the framework (keeping them as horizontal as possible to encourage more flower buds to form) and prune others back to two or three buds.