I’m just as incapable of passing a nursery announcing a sale as I am of driving past Battersea Dogs’ Home without stopping to add yet another waif to the Bryan’s Ground pack. Is it the bargain-hunter mentality or a deep-felt longing to provide a good home for something so hopelessly abandoned? Wholesale nurseries very often have clearances at this time of the year and at one such establishment a few Novembers ago I picked up a carload of mahonias for about £1 each. Of course, they were stunted, pot-bound and in need of TLC, but with their tangled roots gently teased out (a job more easily done in a bucket of water) and planted in a sheltered, semi- shaded situation, they soon bucked up and showed signs of healthy new growth as spring advanced.
All mahonias have holly-like leaves and yellow flowers; most are fragrant. Mine were a mixed lot-including the commonly seen Mahonia aquifolium and a good selection of strong-growing M. x media cultivars such as Charity, Winter Sun and Lionel Fortescue. You’ll find local wholesale growers in the Yellow Pages or on the internet and if you can accommodate a minimum of, say, 20 shrubs of one kind (you can always share them with friends), it’s well worth ringing round to see what’s on offer. As a result of my own enquiries, we now have thickets of these heavenly shrubs in quantities I could never have otherwise afforded.
We moved to Bryan’s Ground, on the border of England and Wales, on a snowy November day in 1993, and although we had partly familiarised ourselves with its three-acre garden during the few months it took for the purchase to be completed, we were ignorant of its winter-flowering plants. Chief among these is Crocus tomma-sinianus, an established colony in a shady area about the size of a tennis court. Spread beneath the rangy boughs of a 90-year- old red oak, the crocuses have continued to multiply, piercing the rough turf each February with an abundance of fragile-looking blooms. The flowers are delicate in appearance, but the bulbs themselves are as tough as the proverbial old boot, and as long as we clear the fallen leaves before they turn to pulp, and mow the grass before the crocuses nose through, we are guaranteed a fine display. C. tommasinianus is a delightfully fickle creature, its colour shifting from white and ash grey to rosy lavender and purple, contributing in mass to a cheery amethyst haze over several weeks. That great ‘crocophile’ E. A. Bowles described some forms as having a ‘wrong-side-of-the- fabric appearance’ to denote this variability, and from their self-seeded offspring in his Essex garden, he selected several prize-winning cultivars.
While waiting for the crocuses, we’re enjoying the long-lasting berries on shrubs in the garden’s mixed borders and out in Cricket Wood, the arboretum we began planting on January 1, 2000. Even the one-year-old native spindles (Euonymus europaeus) are laden with fruits, of psychedelic pink and orange, dangling like earrings from 2ft-high bushes spaced thickly among groves of guelder rose (Viburnum opulus). The viburnum and the euonymus will quickly reach 10-12ft in height, and are on their way to making a decorative informal hedge between arboretum and open pasture. The viburnum also has berries-clusters of glassy, dark red ones, ignored by hungry birds until much later in winter. Yellow-berried forms (V. opulus Xanthocarpum and Fructu Luteo) augment this mixed planting, their own berries turning opalescent and deep ochre as winter closes in.
Aronia, or chokeberry, is another November star performer, with clusters of shiny red, purple or inky-black berries -reminiscent of giant culinary currants-that remain on bare branches long after their vividly coloured autumn leaves have fallen away. They hail from woods in North America and are among the hardiest shrubs we can grow, claiming two-season status with their hawthorn-like blossom in March and April. Another persistent berryer is Callicarpa bodinieri Profusion. Try it among those psychedelic euonymus bushes, where the callicarpa’s tight bunches of dazzling violet fruits will create a disco-lighting effect that should turn the least horticulturally inclined teenager into a gardener overnight.