At Cothay, winter is always just as busy as any other time of the year. The main problem is the West Country weather, which constantly impedes progress. When the rain is too hard or the snow too deep, Przemek, our Polish au pair, refers to it as ‘bottle weather’. This is when you go into the potting shed and drink vodka!
But Mr Huxtable, our gardener, says ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather it’s only that some days are better than others’. I heave a sigh of relief when we finish cutting the borders back to the ground, which we try to finish before Christmas. Many people prefer to tidy their borders in the spring, leaving the vegetation for birds and insects during winter, and the few days when the hoar-frosts cling to the skeletal remains of plants make the garden a magical winter fairyland. But these frosts are so few and far between that I find this impractical.
Soggy foliage takes longer to remove, leaving decaying matter above ground which encourages rot and disease to set in. It is far harder to cut out dead vegetation in the spring when new shoots are emerging, without their being damaged. A quick rake-over in January, and the beds are ready for applying compost. In a large garden, you have to be practical rather than sentimental.
Probably one of the most satisfying winter jobs is pruning the climbing roses. I like the walls to be wired at about 18in intervals, starting 1ft off the ground. We first remove any dead or damaged branches, endeavouring to keep all the canes outside the wires, and tying-in at regular intervals. I find it very tempting to leave too many canes; one wants a good fan shape with one cane to each wire at even intervals, spurring back the side shoots.
You need to stand back at regular intervals, making sure that the rose is well balanced, and that the proportions are correct. I try to remember not to cut the garden twine with my secateurs, which is the quickest way to blunt them. I always think the National Trust’s gardeners train their climbers beautifully; it must take many hours and I wish I had their patience. When all the pruning is finished, we give a generous helping of well-rotted manure to each plant.
One of the most important aspects of winter tree planting aside from making the hole fit the tree (as opposed to making the tree fit the hole) is to stop the roots of bare-rooted tress being dried out by cold winds; this can happen within a relatively short period of time. On a cold and blustery day, even a few minutes of being exposed to the wind can do much damage.
After planting, the Forestry Commission recommends leaving a 6ft-diameter circle of bare earth around the tree for the first three to four years. It is surprising how much goodness is taken from the soil by weeds and grass. We like to mulch the circle with wood chips to suppress the weeds, and keep the warmth in.
Somerset is a wet county where mosses flourish at a great rate in the damp autumn air; their microscopic spores spread on the wind, germinating freely wherever they touch down, especially on the tops of our yew hedges. There they form dense clumps, which, if not removed, eventually kill the tops of the hedges. We used to spray with Armillatox, but it has now been withdrawn from the market, and it is hard graft picking off the patches of moss to let the light and air back in.
Even when you can barely see through the drifting rain, the pattern of the winter garden is powerful, when all that is left is the structure. The yew hedges are dark and sharp against the scudding clouds; the rivers and pools are full of rain. There is an itchy feeling in your cold toes, and when the end of your spade is hardly visible, it is time to go inside, and start the really heavy work of turning the pages of the New Year’s catalogues.