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.

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