When I crouch down to look closely at the layer of thick frost lying on newly dug soil in the vegetable garden in the morning, I can see a miniature mountain landscape. A few weeks ago, after digging the first of the vegetable beds, I saw a layer of spiders’ webs that appeared overnight like a fine veil thrown over the surface of the soil. The spiders’ work was almost secret, revealed only in the autumn sunshine of early mornings, but it is far too cold for the spiders in the morning now. Sometimes I think it is also too cold for me, but then there is that wonderful equilibrium, the invigorating clash of body heat and ice-cold air, that gardeners know so well with jobs like digging on a chilly morning. Once the heat is up, nothing feels more natural.
The Christmas colour of crimson usually lingers on in the garden throughout midwinter in the form of crab apples. ‘Red Sentinel’ and ‘Gorgeous’ rarely let the side down, but this year, the best crab apples are to be found on two trees in the castle drive. Little amber-coloured fruits shine out from the earthy, woodland hues of winter. Some years the fruits are golden, other years they are streaked with russet. Beyond the fruits, I can glimpse the blossom of a particularly hardy little rhododendron. In the mildest winters, it flowers at the end of December, fragile blossom looking lost and lonely beneath surrounding winter trees. In cold winters, the flowers wait until February or March before appearing, blending with snowdrops or crocus.
Not far from the crab apple trees is the newly-rescued, pink horse chestnut. My husband planted this tree, perhaps a decade ago, close to the site of a wind-blown beech tree that took us a fortnight to clear. That year, the bishop’s woodshed was filled up to the rafters. The replacement tree, the pink horse chestnut, is predictably slow-growing, but encroaching laurel is now blocking out light and life from around it. I should have done something about this problem a long time ago. Every couple of years, however, Mike Lowther and his fellow arboriculturists come to the castle to crown-lift and prune the trees on the drive, keeping access clear. Last month Mike also cleared the laurel from all around the pink horse chestnut. I wonder now if the chestnut will burst into bloom in May, relieved to be freed at last from the laurel.
Hidden in the darkness of remaining laurels, are the crumbling remains of a seat that was made from the trunk of the same wind-blown beech tree, roughly carved with the chainsaw and rolled into place. Seats were one of our main concerns when we first came to the garden, and we made seats for every time of day and every season; seats for chasing the sun, seats for visiting retreatants and ordinands in the days of the bishop. They were made from whatever materials came to hand; scaffolding boards, fence posts, old floor boards, tree limbs. On frosty December mornings, I sit for a while on the east-facing seat that is tucked against a yew hedge and nestles beneath overhanging limbs of a variegated holly. Looking out from here, beyond the garden, I can see a touch of sparkle on the Caldew river, and then a hint of ghostliness as distant and anonymous cars pass over Rose Bridge. Above me, blackbirds are feasting noisily on holly berries. On the other side of the hedge, my spade is waiting for my return to the vegetable garden.
Queen’s counsel for December
Crab apples are compact trees, suitable for medium-sized gardens. They are often planted in orchards where their abundant blossom is excellent for helping to pollinate other apple trees. Autumn fruits are borne in shades of red, orange and yellow.
Rhododendron Nobleanum Group
Rhododendrons in this group are amongst the earliest to flower, often in bloom when snow is on the ground. They look most at home when planted in groups amongst other evergreens but also suit a semi-shaded corner in a smaller garden.
Red horse chestnut
Aesculus x carnea ‘Briotii’ is a variety grown for its fine display of large panicles of red blossom in May. This chestnut tree is often seen in parks and arboreta, and can reach a height or around 25m.
Teasels are biennials that are easily grown from seed in spring. They are beautiful in every season; when tall stems begin to rise up from rosettes of foliage, when cone-shaped heads of purple flowers are in full bloom, and when seed heads are covered in frost.
All gardens should have a seat – somewhere from which to appreciate and enjoy your outdoor surroundings. It is so important to be able to relax in the garden and take some time to sit and stare.