Stable states Posted on December 3, 2008

The old jingle about November is right. The month may come in with a late burst of autumn glory, but by the time it goes the garden has reached its low point of the year. The few flickers of promise (yes, we have a few snowdrops, a lonely iris and some wayward violets) don’t make any kind of picture. By Christmas there will be all sorts of fun, from hellebores and mahonias to honeysuckles and daphnes (and primroses, I’m certain).

Poking around with my most sensitive appreciators at full stretch, feeling rather like a snail with its eyes on stalks, I am thrown back on the interest of ivy leaves and the glitter of holly. Every year we read garden writers doing their winter-interest pieces. By February it’s galanthomania. Bark: yes it can be all sorts of colours and look pretty in the sun. Am I sounding jaded? I’m not. I’m trying to see beyond the horticlichés to what sorts of particular pleasure a static, muddy, winter-bound garden can give.

I started in the doldrums of the garden; the places (we all have them) that we rarely see and never think about; between the shed and the neighbour, as it were. The most you’d usually do there is pick up plastic litter. Funnily enough these may well be our best bits of wildness, undisturbed, settled into a steady state where the ivy climbs and the snowberry encroaches, but gradually, and the ferns under the fence plump up unnoticed year by year. Do they make a picture? They do to their little inhabitants and just might to a fringe photographer (grainy, black and white, very

handheld and understating something that escapes me). To my critical mind, no: the frame is as good as blank. I do say, though, that only a slight adjustment, anything overtly calculated, could fill it and focus it. To multiply the ferns, for example. At least ten per cent of the garden, and ideally more like twenty, should be in this sort of stable state.

A generation ago Graham Stuart Thomas did his best to make labour-saving acceptable (it was already fashionable) in his book Plants for Groundcover. Today its swathes of periwinkle or pachysandra look dated and bland.

We have a few places here that look after themselves all year and don’t repel me. A partial list includes the space behind the cottage, for example, where broad-leaved Pseudosasa and a splendid Irish ivy, gleaned from beside Rosemary Verey’s little garden temple, have come to a sort of super-power truce. Unable to advance on the ground the ivy has taken to the trees – but that’s my fault. Otherwise an eye-catching stable state.

The backs of wall borders where ivy-leaved toadflax holds sway in summer and only a few hart’s tongue ferns and gladdons in winter. Gladdons, or gladwyns if you prefer, or Iris foetidissima if you must talk Latin, are one of the easiest and most prolific of ground-holders here. I don’t say you should leave them entirely alone: just visit them in winter to enjoy their cornucopias of bright orange berries, pick them and broadcast them around. I take a fork to the odd bramble; otherwise they are happy in dry unproductive shade.

A twenty-foot band all round our perimeter where all I ever do is tidy the native yew, holly, thorn (black and white), spindle and field maple, ash, oak, Norway maple (not native but self-sown) and ivy, bugle and escapees (periwinkle prominent) that have claimed the ground.

The thicket where in an inspired moment I planted beech, box and a few yews and have done nothing ever since but mulch with leaves raked from all around. The rustling and scurrying here are the loudest and busiest in the garden, and the winter colours of green and fiery brown some of the best.

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