The Garden in February

A miracle, assisted by some sturdy rope, is responsible for one of the tallest trees at Lea Gardens to remain upright after 2011’s Christmas day hurricane. The tree in question is Eucalyptus parviflora ssp. debeuzevillei, usually referred to as Eucalyptus beelzebubii, because it is such a handsome devil. It hails from New South Wales and the seed my specimen was raised from must have come from a high altitude location, as it outshines all the other eucalyptus species I’ve tried over the years.Its sea-green foliage has the texture of plastic, is impervious to all the Shetland weather can throw at it and its bark is beautifully patterned in creams and greys.

It was allowed to become hopelessly pot-bound while I was dithering about where to plant it, and has never found a firm root-hold as a result. It is extremely fast-growing but, while most eucalyptus are capable of re-sprouting from a stump, the devil does not take kindly to coppicing and had to be reduced to a single trunk from a multi-stemmed specimen a couple of years ago, in order to render it a little less top-heavy.

 Beautiful bark and leaves are all very well, but what the Shetland gardener is hungry for by now, is some floral colour. Winter-flowering shrubs suitable for our climate are few and far between, which makes the handful which thrive in my garden all the more precious:

Berberis ilicifolia (holly-leaved barberry) is, for reasons inexplicable to me, not officially in cultivation in this country. This well-rounded, medium-sized South American evergreen revels in the Shetland climate and is one of the stars of the February garden, when every twig and branch is hung with tiny tubular bells in luminous zingy tangerine.

Witch hazels expand crumpled-ribbon petals on their bare wood from December onwards. In Shetland they start to show colour in the second month of the year, and no self-respecting witch should be without one (I have no less than three). The most impressive is without doubt Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’ with flowers of a pale sulphur yellow that show up well over a distance.

For plant breeders the witch hazels’ natural yellow wasn’t a particularly exciting colour and from the 1950s on a few plants with tawny orange or copper red flowers appeared on the market, and ‘Diane’, trained against the east-facing wall of my house, is one of the best.  Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, in common with most witch hazel cultivars, is a hybrid of Hamamelis japonica and the Chinese species H. mollis . As often happens in plant breeding (roses are a classic example) scent is sacrificed on the altar of bigger and better flowers and witch hazel perfume is now as rare as hen’s teeth.

If you want winter scent as well as colour, ‘Arnold Promise’ is the witch hazel for you. It flowers in a rich, clear yellow and enchants with a unique spicy scent, inherited from its Chinese parent.

Witch hazels can grow into substantial shrubs, and all cultivars are propagated by grafting, and don’t come cheap. They are an investment – with a guaranteed return. They flower from an early age, are exceptionally long lived, have the most breath-taking autumn colour, and you don’t have to be a witch or wizard to make them happy in your garden, provided you can afford them a modicum of shelter.

 While witch hazels can be relied upon to blossom at the same time each year, the flowering of winter heathers varies widely from season to season. I’ve known years when they remained in tight bud until well into March, and others, such as 2012, when they looked striking from mid-January onwards. There are hundreds of cultivars of Erica carnea and its hybrids to choose from, with colours ranging from silvery white to dark crimson. There are doubles and plants with golden foliage, and all bring glad tidings to those who garden on alkaline soil. Winter-flowering heathers, unlike their Shetland relatives, don’t need a highly acidic growing medium. A handful of peat or – even better, and much longer lasting – some granite chips dug into the soil prior to planting, will make them happy.

They are amongst the most floriferous of dwarf shrubs I know and put on girth with the same speed some humans do (especially over the festive season). Don’t be misled by those delicate little tufts in a 9cm pot, and give them plenty of space. Winter heathers look fabulous underneath witch hazels, and they also team up well with small crocuses and snowdrops.

February is snowdrop month. Their new shoots breaking through grass or leaf litter at the turn of the year are a joy to behold, and a first sign that spring is just around the corner. Galanthus nivalis in its single and double forms is the snowdrop to be found in most Shetland gardens and needs no description.

To most of us a snowdrop is a snowdrop is a snowdrop, but don’t tell this to a Galanthophile or snowdrop collector. Britain’s horticultural world is in the grip of snowdrop mania, reminiscent of tulip mania in 17th century Holland, which, as you know, ended in tears and worse. Prices have been going through the roof for the last decade with a single bulb of G. nivalis ‘Flocon de Neige’ (snowflake to you and me) changing hands for £265 in 2008. If you think that’s a bit steep, bear in mind that the price jumped to a record £357 last year.

If you’re itching to add a little variety to your snowdrops without breaking the bank, Galanthus elwesii and G. plicatus look sufficiently different to create a little stir, and G. nivalis ‘Sam Arnott’, a large, early flowering cultivar with a strong honey scent, and a great favourite of mine, can still be had for under a fiver.

At long last the days are visibly lengthening and the endless dark and squelch of December and early January are giving way to some sunshine and a little crispness under-foot. There’s nothing like a winter day’s weeding, when even the most obstinate ones, such as pearlwort, loosened by frost, can be peeled from the ground without bringing the whole garden with them.

Weeding is cold work, and I’m looking forward to a roaring fire this evening – fed with eucalyptus wood. The volatile oils in the bark create little fireworks and the scent – forget about cough sweets and Vick’s vapour rub – is citrus fresh. I’d love to share it with my readers; perhaps there will come a time when scents can be transferred as easily as texts and pictures?

Rosa Steppanova

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