November Muses by Roger Roberts

Blog by Roger Roberts

Tasteless Slush Puppy drizzle swirls in eddies in garden recesses. In the compost corner, one heap is diminished to a fifth of its original size. Under the old carpet is a friable, dark mixture of last year’s harvest of death; on top, protected by the high wooden sides and covered in leaves, is a collection of black plastic pots of narcissi labelled and pandered to for the local spring show. The other heap, almost full to the brim, is a green foetus, which, counter intuitively, will warm, shrink and decay to a rich fully formed vital contributor to plant welfare within a year.

In this miserable weather, typical of November, clothed suitably against the chill damp fog and grey clasp of approaching winter I ponder my faith in this hobby. Only a few weeks ago the bounteous delights of the early autumn garden filled my senses. Now, fallen leaves drift into the centre of shrubs, trapped and difficult to extract. Misplaced grass and weeds are parasitic in the midst of choice perennials recently cut down and composted. Tools are soiled and blunt. Less hardy plants and pots require the snuggle of fleece and mulch. Rampant deciduous hedges shout for renovation. Plant supports are forlorn in their uselessness. Lily pots, now in their third year, yearn to be emptied and refreshed. The pond, once alive and literally humming is now a black mirror, corruption in its depths as vegetation rots.

These tasks are not the most joyous of the gardening year, exacerbated by the challenges of wind, cold and rain and are thus put off until there are no more days to delay. For soon, December’s jobs will be upon us.

There is promise of renewal too. This is the month of root cuttings. A slanted cut at the base, horizontal at the tip in order to record its correct alignment. 2 to 4 inches long, ideally pencil-thick of Crambe cordifolia, Echinops, Verbascum, Phlox, Acanthus……..treated with a fungicide, planted level to the surface of watered cuttings compost and covered with half inch of grit and kept in a cold frame, propagator or greenhouse until rooted by spring, ready to grow on and plant out.

Trees are nearly naked though Liquidamber styraciflua Worplesdon is fully resilient, its large leaves resplendent in hues of green, yellow, red and gold lingering until late winter. Birch and Acer griseum flounce their bark petticoats. Bamboos: black and yellow stemmed Phyllostachys and cinnamon Borinda scabrida are now prominent lacking competition for attention of earlier months. A mature Fargesia murielae Simba yo-yo’s its weighty long leaves in tune with wet and dry days. Pointed sword leaves of Yucca and Trachycarpus are defiant immigrants, sky shooting flowers of Y. gloriosa remain undiminished.

Blue shoots of Salix irrorata and white bloom of Rubus cockburnianus Golden Vale lighten the gloom. The beech hedge is dressed for winter in its brittle brown delicate yet hardy taffeta leaf. And then there are the odd jewels – clusters of iridescent violet beads of Callicarpa Profusion and red holly berries. Moss is plumped up on bare rock, blue Juniper, Cedrus and Abies animates coldness. Sarcoccoca, epimedium, hebe, photinia, euonymus, pieris and a plethora of evergreens punctuate the desolation of borders.

Tall grasses, with fluffy seed heads and russet colours, illuminated with concealed lighting after the early sunset, defy winter’s cusp and draw the eye of humans cowering behind windows with cupped hands around comforting tea or Horlicks. Structure is laid bare. Box, cloud tree, sculpture, boundaries, evergreens, gates and buildings exert their strength in surrounding adversity, their permanence a promise of better, kinder seasons to come. Already, tight buds are forming on rhododendrons, camellia and magnolia.

Everything has its time and place. As the year nears its demise we can make final preparations for our winter celebrations, look forward to family and friends gathering, plan for future holidays and reflect that many of our fellow-men will not flirt with these happy thoughts but will face this unforgiving season without hope or solace.

Peter Cooke