At the same time as bringing boxes of seed potatoes out from the darkness of the old-fashioned pantry adjoining Gardener’s Cottage, I take a close look at dahlia tubers that are also stored there. During the winter months, most of the space in the pantry belongs to tubers, corms and pots of forced bulbs. There were a couple of winters, though, when we decided to store plants like this in the cellar, deep below Strickland’s Tower, because the temperature and humidity down there is so constant. But this stone-floored cellar feels so lonely and haunted, and even more so since Canon David Weston, an expert on the history of Rose Castle, told me the cellar was more than likely used as a prison by medieval bishops. There are few visible forms of life in this cellar, just clouds of little flies that swirl around in the torchlight.
In a different subterranean cellar, this time beneath the castle’s kitchens, signs of life are more obvious, and you have to step carefully to avoid the toads; all shapes and sizes of toads, from thumbnail miniatures to fully grown, warty adults. They thrive down here beside the boilers, beneath the pipes, and in crevices in the damp sandstone. It would be cruel to move them at this time of year, but when spring arrives I carry a few up from the cellar in a black bucket and release them in the garden, always hopeful they will feast on the vegetable garden’s healthy population of slugs.
Slugs, I hope, will also be under attack in spring from my new brood of black silkie chickens. At the moment, these little bantams, barely fully grown, are keen to keep out of the winter chill, venturing out of the henhouse and into the new woodland area of the garden on the sunniest days. At night their henhouse is safe from foxes, but it takes only a slight dusting of snow on the ground for me to be able to spot fox footprints along the path in the moat – the main night-time thoroughfare through the garden for an array of animals. There are also a few tell-tale hairs caught beneath the rusty bars of an old metal gate where the fox squeezes through to the garden from the field.
On blue-skied January days, stems and branches of ancient, deciduous trees appear animated and lively. If you look carefully, their shapes, textures and outlines seem almost reptilian, and then if you look for longer you begin to see human features forming amongst the curves and bumps on limbs and trunks. The copper beech beside Strickland’s Tower must be one of the oldest deciduous trees within the curtilage of the garden; probably around 200 years old, but not much older because this variety didn’t arrive in England until around 1770. It is tempting to imagine that Samuel Goodenough, Bishop of Carlisle from 1808 until 1827, may have planted it. After all, as a keen gardener and the very first treasurer of the Linnean Society of London, he would have had an ear to the ground for all things botanical. The offer of seedlings of the latest tree introductions surely must have been irresistible, especially when he had the option of planting them in the spacious garden of Rose Castle with the belief that they would have a chance to live long, undisturbed lives, and grow into ancient specimens worthy of all manner of admiration and imaginings.
Queen’s counsel for January
Lifted just after the first frosts of autumn, dahlia tubers presently in winter storage should remain firm and dry. Any that are succumbing to rot should be discarded, and remember that mice will also find stored tubers attractive at this time of year.
Keeping chickens in the garden is an increasingly popular hobby, and silkie bantams are an ideal choice. They don’t wander far, are exceptionally good-natured, and help to keep slugs under control without too much scraping and scratching from their small feet.
A purple beech, listed in a tree catalogue in 1777, is thought to be the first record of the copper beech in Britain. Purple beeches were recorded in 1680 near Zurich in Switzerland; legend has it that a group of five trees sprung up on a site where five brothers had been killed.
Viburnums for winter
Winter-flowering viburnums can begin to bloom in October, and continue to produce blossom until March. These deciduous shrubs look unremarkable during summer, but planted close to a path or door, their fragrant flowers are a winter delight.
Layers of snow can act as protective blankets against hard frosts. Try not to be tempted to remove snow from the surface of containers that are planted with spring or summer-flowering bulbs, but leave it to melt away in its own time.