I have always had a dislike of the cold. I thrive on the sun and the heat so on days like these you are likely to find me wrapped up in at least five layers of jumpers and still complaining about numb toes and fingers. But, I have to say, there are so many things I love about this time of year, it is well worth putting up with a few winter challenges just to be outside on one of the rare but beautiful frosty mornings, seeing the bare outline of trees silhouetted against a blue sky and taking in the exquisite scent of winter flowering shrubs – its enough to lead one to poetry!
I never tire of these classic shots of the walled garden as they change in each season. Our time lapse cameras have been taking shots regularly for the last nine months so it will be very exciting to see a whole year in the garden unfold before our eyes. These are shots from my mobile taken from the platform this week, showing the mist hanging in the air and the frost crisping every surface.
Winter is such a good time to see the bare bones of a garden. Time to appreciate the strict formality and precise geometry of the walled garden design rather than being distracted by the colour of its plants.
We try to feed the wild birds throughout the winter period but they must be admired on days like these when the work is tireless to find enough food to keep up their body temperatures and maintain sufficient energy levels for sustenance through to spring. I feel extra generous and give them a bigger portion of sunflower seeds on the most frosty of mornings.
Even when there is little gardening to be done, one of our volunteers has been hard at work preparing for the season ahead and making sure everything is ready to tempt our birdlife to choose Cressing as Location Location once the urge comes to make a nest and raise the next brood. This robin box is tucked safely behind the broom (Cytisus scoparius) where there will be ample cover and perching spots on departure and arrival at the nest.
This new Blue tit box has been positioned in the mulberry tree (Morus nigra), complete with woodpecker guard just in case the wrong kind of prospector comes around.
Before all that happens, however, it is the winter visiting birds that catch our eye and none more so than the eagerly awaited Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris – some names are so unfortunate!).
Roughly a million of these birds arrive in the UK each winter from Scandinavia and sometimes it can seem as if they are all at Cressing! Arriving at work on a cold winter morning to see vast numbers of these tough birds spread across Dovehouse field hunting for invertebrates or suddenly seeing them take flight in a flourish of silvery white underwings are sights not to be missed. So far this season they have been seen in small numbers but as the rowan and hawthorn berries in their northern habitats become depleted we hope to see many more of them through February.
Fieldfares are on the RSPB red list of endangered species, meaning there has been a severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years. This clearly wasn’t a problem in Chaucer’s day when they were regularly trapped and eaten, a time when their highly gregarious nature was a distinct disadvantage. Thankfully today we prefer to admire their tough, robust character, shrugging off the challenges of the harshest winter landscape.
‘Fieldfares are strong purposeful birds. I have watched them leave a thicket roost at daybreak in a gale – the wavering curtseying flock bored its way forwards with ease, with a zest in overcoming difficulty, and they flew high, while bigger birds, gulls and woodpigeons, sought advantage by keeping close to the ground’
Eric Ennion The British Bird 1943
Colour is such a rarity at this time of year, it stands out and catches the eye wherever it is found and there are precious few sights more delightful than the disarmingly delicate looking blooms of cyclamen (Cyclamen coum) as they pop up above the leaf litter.
No winter hat needed here. It is as tough as old boots, despite its delicate looks, leading to the following description by Vita Sackville- West in The Garden 1946 ‘The little frightened cyclamen,with leveret ears laid back…’
It thinks nothing of temperatures down to -10ºC, providing the soil is not waterlogged, and being native to the coastal areas of the Black Sea and the mountains bordering the northeast Mediterranean it is happy growing in regions with cooler, damper summers and plentiful winter rainfall, such as we have in Britain (hmm… are they a thing of the past?).
Many different explanations have been given for the name Cyclamen, deriving as it does from the Greek Cyclos, a circle. The most probable that it was given on account of the characteristic spiral coil of the stalk after flowering. ‘The head or seede-vessel shrinketh downe, winding his footestalke, and coyling it selfe like a cable’, so said the 17th century herbalist John Parkinson.
Another star of the garden in January, though not for its colour as much as its magnificent show of catkins, is the cobnut (Corylus avellana). This tree, the central feature of our nuttery, is laden with catkins this winter. Several years ago I made the decision to start coppicing the four outer trees in this collection of cobnuts, leaving just the central specimen as a standard tree. The five trees in this tiny area had grown to a size where they were competing heavily for available light and none had fruited well over the past four years. Coppicing the four corner trees has allowed extra light to reach the central tree and the result in flower power is clear to see. Hopefully this will also improve the understory of spring flowering bulbs and flowers as they, too, benefit from the extra light afforded by the ancient coppicing routine. An added bonus will be the hazel poles produced, which will be used as supports around the garden, as they would have been by the Tudor gardeners four hundred years ago.
Now some dates for your diaries. Coming soon:
The Friends of Cressing Temple Gardens annual quiz
Friday 15th February 2019
Cressing Temple Visitor Centre
Teams of 4-6 people, £5 per head.
Tea, coffee provided
Bring a bottle/snacks
Book your table (space limited to 10)
A date to reserve for later: What promises to be a fascinating talk by….
Plant hunter and gardener with passion
Come and hear his tales of……
Growing up at Lullingstone Castle
Kidnap in the Columbian jungle
The making of a ‘world garden’ at Lullingstone Castle
Cressing Temple Wheat Barn
Details of ticket booking to follow later this month.