The late December garden

Late December is a paradoxical time with its short days and its gaudy celebrations. Even when the sun shines, the light is low and combined with the early arrival of evening, I feel the urge to hibernate. It’s a low time, suitable for contemplating the past year but not quite time to think about the new one.

Emily Dickinson expresses some of these thoughts in the first few lines of one of her poems:
There’s a certain Slant of light
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
……………………………………………………………………………………………..

On two rare sunny days at the end of 2013 (December 26 and 31), I went to the Leechwell Garden in Totnes to see how nature was reacting to this low time. The Leechwell Garden was created in 2010 from a derelict plot of land that had been, for many years, an orchard. We can see the Garden clearly from our kitchen; we watched with interest as it took shape and became a community space. It’s now an important part of Totnes life and used by many.

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The Garden entrance and the pergola

Planting in the Garden has been very carefully planned to provide flower forage for insects throughout their busy time. There is also a Bug House which some solitary bees have used for their overwintering larvae; I await the hatching of the new bees later this year. Most likely there are also bumblebees in the Garden. They would be expected to be safely hibernating at this time of year but in the past week or so I have seen fat bumblebees out and about elsewhere in Devon and in Dorset.

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The Bug House with an unexpected visitor

On the days I visited the Garden, the sun shone from a cloudless pale blue winter sky. The recent weather had been very mild but also wet and windy so the paths were treacherous. I didn’t expect to see any flowers this late in the year so it was a surprise to find a Prostrate Rosemary with some mauve flowers dotted around the mass of dark green foliage and a few pink blooms on patches of Thrift and Heather.

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Heather and Thrift

Despite the paucity of flowers there was colour elsewhere if you looked for it, mainly from the fruits of the carefully chosen plants. The wooden pergola, an important feature of the upper garden, is covered with climbing roses and clematis in summer. One of the roses (Francis E Lester) now shows copious sprays of bright red rose hips, some plump and many slightly shrivelled but all retaining their own natural beauty, especially when seen against the clear blue sky. Elsewhere, a Cotoneaster was covered with red berries which will provide welcome food for birds when times get tougher. At the back of one of the borders, I spotted the distinctive white, translucent seed pods of Honesty, hanging like paper lanterns.

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The most striking sights were the yellow fruit suspended from leafless branches of a Crab Apple (malus), rather like baubles on a Christmas tree. Some of the fruit were intact , some were decaying, swollen and split but they all extended the colour range at this time of year.

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Despite the colours I have picked out, the overall feel of the Garden was monochrome, in tune with this low time of year. It would, however, be a mistake to think that everything is dormant; if you look closely there are clear signs of preparations for the new season. The Crab Apple is covered with buds and I found some catkins on several trees including Silver Birch. They are getting ready for the lengthening of the days and the retreat of the bad weather.

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13 thoughts on “The late December garden”

  1. I think it is very difficult to have a garden for all seasons. Winter must surely be the toughest time for a decorative garden. With such a young garden they still seem to be doing well to provide interest. The problem is what interests a lot of us is the sun and that is usually in scarce supply.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, I think they are doing very well to provide interest at this time of year and I would not really expect much colour anyway. I was more interested in just asking the question “What do you see?”.

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      1. I think (if I understand you correctly) I see most gardens as dull in the winter. I have to work a bit harder than in summer when your senses are assaulted by colours and perfumes and sounds. But there is plenty to appreciate and when I do find a bark to admire or a delicately scented winter-flowering shrub I savour it more particularly.

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      2. I agree, we were out in the sun in Torbay this morning and came across a large patch of osteospermum in a garden with its striking purple flowers – quite a display. It did not attract any bees, however, but we also found some rosemary with many flowers and here there was one bumblebee worker and quite few (what I think were) drone flies

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      3. Theoretically, the bumble bee should be a queen as all the workers should be dead by now and the young queens will not have started their nest yet. But who knows this year the mild weather is creating confusion.

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      4. You are right, I am making too many assumptions about what I saw. All I can be sure of was that it was a small stripy bumblebee.

        I was heavily influenced by a report that said that Buff-tailed Bumblebees maintain colonies in the winter in the south of the UK and because it was small I jumped to the conclusion of a worker. I shall have to keep looking!

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      5. I have only seen the queens in the winter here. I do think though, that one of the “white-tailed” ones does a second brood in late summer as I see a number of queens before hibernation time. It would be really interesting to find a winter nest. I’d love to know if the plants produce the same amount of nectar at low temperatures as at higher. I’ve a feeling my Viburnum tinus produces less when it is colder.

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  2. The bumble bees you’ve seen are probably buff-tailed bumblebees, which in recent years have often been active throughout the year in southern England. It’s exciting to see signs of spring coming. Today I saw snowdrop and crocus shoots.

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