Guardian Article: Alys Fowler – Happiness is a winter’s afternoon

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Some interesting cultivars mentioned by Alice Fowler in the Guardian today:

I don’t need much to be happy. That I get to be outside in winter if I wish is enough. I like those days when the sky is a blinding white-grey and the sun burns through a hazy shadow. Or when the sun comes out for a moment. I greet its barely there warmth with 20 minutes of gardening before heading back in for toast and tea.

Unfortunately, the things I love to eat need more than this. Due to the low light levels in December, nothing grows much. Anything you eat in December needs to have banked enough hours earlier on. For a slow-growing parsnip that means a whole summer of sun, for fast-growing oriental greens a few weeks of early autumn rays is enough.

A few soldier on regardless. These are so self-sufficient, I don’t even play a great part in their upkeep. I weed by grazing and if it’s very cold they get some fleece or a cloche. They sow themselves about and occasionally I move seedlings, but most of my work is eating.

Lamb’s lettuce, sometimes sold as mache or corn salad seems much like me, happy on just a few glimpses of sunlight. I sowed my patch three years ago. It may be a small salad leaf for winter, but it’s hardy and hardly ever attacked by pests. Sow in late summer and don’t let it dry out during germination. Then in spring let it flower. It has dainty blue sprays of tiny flowers. I left a few too many to self-seed that first year and I was overrun. The following year I was more judicious and now have the right amount. Sow in situ in good soil, thin to 10cm apart for single plants. I tend an Italian variety called ‘d’Olanda’.

The buck’s horn plantain is another wonderful thing that springs up unaided and provides plenty of thin green leaves for eating. It makes a perfect edging plant. The flowers are nondescript; the seed heads are much like other plantains and do an equally good job of seeding around. The leaves can be picked from late summer to early spring, if the weather makes them too tough I cook with them. Sow in late summer in modules and then plant out 15-20cm apart and let nature do the rest. I use an Italian variety called ‘Erba stella minutina’.

Finally I allow miner lettuce or winter purslane (often sold as Claytonia perfoliatata) to do the same thing. The young seedlings are so delicate and bright green it is hard to believe it’s so tough. The leaves are succulent, fresh and a wonderful accompaniment for spicy winter leaves like rocket. Sow at the end of July in situ in light, well-draining soil. Once it’s up and running allow it to flower and it will reappear in autumn or spring like clockwork.

Alys on…winter scent

The problem with many winter flowering shrubs is that they need space – something I find hard to justify when for the rest of the year they look a little prosaic. But oh boy are they beautiful now. Witchhazels are a good example, those spidery flowers are astounding in midwinter. The best is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ – a large red-flowered form; ‘Jelena’, with its orange pink petals; and ‘Pallida’ with its lemon yellow flowers. They’re deeply scented to attract the few pollinators around, but at 12ft at maturity, not exactly ones for a small garden.

Thankfully parks and municipal gardens know the value of winter cheer. There’s often a corner dedicated to the few that do winter so well. In my park I can find Rubus cockburnianus, that snowy white-stemmed relative of the bramble. There’s the heady scent of Viburnum x bodnantense, V. farreri and V. grandiflorum with small white or pink flowers on bare branches. Lower to the ground is Sarcococca hookeriana with its tiny, thin sweet smelling flowers and towering above them all is the intoxicating Mahonia japonica with its lax drooping yellow flowers among those terribly spiky leaves.


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