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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.