Winter Fare by Marina Christopher from Phoenix Perennials

Alitex Growing On

I inherited a stand of Christmas trees when I moved to my site at Medstead. Most were a couple of feet tall and over the years I have sold a few during the festive season.

Those that remain have grown quickly after a slow start and with the recent wet summers have now become a veritable forest. Towering up to 25 feet, most are slightly too large for the average living room but great for village greens or town centres. 

Forecasts of severe cold weather made me consider the plight of our feathered friends. Fewer berries and other sources of food were visible in my travels around the countryside so I decided to make a portable feast outside my kitchen window. 

First fell a large Christmas tree using a hand pruning saw – good for keeping you warm, burning off a few calories and getting the heart racing. Then cut off at least 10 foot off the bottom of the tree. Follow that by hauling 15 foot of tree about 400 yards to the kitchen window – also good for cardiovascular activity. Dig a narrow but deep hole (about 2 foot deep) and line tree trunk up with it. Wait till you have a willing friend to haul on ropes and hold tree upright while you rush around hammering long metal stakes into the ground and attaching guy ropes from tree to stake. Stand back and admire gently leaning tower of Pisa tree. Decorate with bird feeders, fat balls and suet-filled coconut halves. Wait for feathered visitors and don’t forget to supply fresh unfrozen water as well. Portable bird feeder! 

It was so wet in December that my tree ended up in a hole full of water and looks as though it has grown there (except for the guy ropes!). As it is still a vision of beauty I will leave it until it looks moribund – the birds love it. 

The weather is distinctly cold at present. -4.5C last night and only  -3.5C this morning so I decided it was definitely time to do some paperwork rather than venture outside for more than a few minutes at a time. Snow and freezing temperatures severely interrupt nursery work. Potting compost becomes a frozen lump and cannot be used, watering is impossible as the irrigation system freezes up and maintenance jobs such as hedge cutting and cutting down herbaceous material has to wait until frost and snow thaws. So I spend many happy hours looking through seed catalogues and deciding what interesting plants I would like to grow this year. 

Preparation for RHS Chelsea

I supply hundreds of plants for some of the Chelsea Flower Show gardens and many of them require hardy annuals in flower. These are sown in November and December, germinate within a couple of weeks and are pricked out into plug trays as soon as they are large enough to handle. When they have rooted through to the base of the plug tray they are potted into 9cm pots and kept growing strongly. They are potted on again as soon as they have rooted through the 9cm pots into something altogether bigger to be ready for Chelsea. As long as their growth remains unchecked they will make into fine specimens for the show. 

Autumn sowing is usually very successful for many hardy perennials unless we experience a long, wet winter when seed pots can get waterlogged and are susceptible to fungal disease such as botrytis. I often sow from September onwards to get ahead of the frantic early spring months when there are never enough hours in the day! 

From a biological point of view, seed of many of our favourite perennials ripen in late summer and are shed onto the ground in early autumn. At this time of year there is usually plenty of rain (this year was certainly damp with some of the most prolific displays of fungus I have ever experienced) and the soil is warm, ideal for good germination. Many plants produce vast quantities of small seeds, the majority of which will never grow to maturity. 

Helping birdlife in winter months

Seed provides food for all manner of wildlife from insects and birds to larger mammals such as badgers and deer. Charms of goldfinches and mixed flocks of tits are feasting on the seed-heads I have left standing in the nursery. I get great pleasure watching them flit through, gossiping, bickering and munching; just like friends at a local coffee morning. I have a family of bullfinches on the nursery and I have seen 4 males and two females feeding together. I wonder when the adults will tell their offspring it is time to find their own territories. I am aware that bullfinches can do great damage to ornamental buds and berries but I do enjoy watching these cheerful finches with their bright pinkish-red bibs and glossy black velvet caps.

Seed Preparation

I digress - I was considering the fate of seeds. Some will be consumed, others will fail to germinate, others will germinate but be eaten, hoed or die for a multitude of other reasons and just a few will make it through to the following season. By sowing seed collected in the garden or purchased from seed companies, we can ensure that a greater number of young plants will survive to be planted out and grown to fruition. It always astonishes me that a seed no finer than a grain of dust, such as some poppies or foxgloves can grow in a season to large substantial plants. 

I prepare seeds in the warmth of the house. I write labels with the name, date and provenance of the seed and arrange the seed packets in the order the labels were written. I love to shake the packets and hear the sound of the seeds jingling around. Call me an ‘anorak’ but it gives me great pleasure! 

Outside I prepare my seed compost. I have not found a seed compost that I like ready- prepared so I mix my own. I fill 9cm pots of my seed compost and tamp the top to give a smooth surface. Then I label the pot, sow my seed and cover with a layer of fine grit and tamp again. The seed pots are watered with a fine rose, and then put in a cold frame or an unheated greenhouse. Unless it is very warm with a lot of sunshine, there is usually enough moisture for the seeds to germinate. If the pots do appear dry I will give them some water. The pots will freeze in heavy frosts, which is important for the germination of a wide variety of perennials. 

Some plants tolerate autumn sowing better than others; indeed a few plants positively prefer to be sown fresh. Most members of the buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae, including hellebores, anemones, hepaticas, thalictrums and aconitums germinate more readily when sown as soon as possible after ripening. Umbellifers, which include the cow parsleys, sea hollies and astrantias, prefer an autumn sowing as they require freezing to break the inhibitors that enforce seed dormancy. Many hardy annuals are more successful, larger and more floriferous if sown and germinated the previous season. A good gardening friend always sowed his sweet peas on Christmas Day for a fine display the following year. I suspected it was a good excuse to get some fresh air away from the celebrations! 

As soon as December is over, there is a marked increase in daylight hours, which stimulates many seeds to germinate. Bulbs will be pushing their way through the soil and snowdrops, winter aconites and some early Crocus and Narcissus will be making an appearance. If it is warm enough, early bumble bees and maybe the odd butterfly emerging from hibernation will be abroad, savouring any early bloom for a good feed.

If it turns out to be a cold winter season, wrap up warm and enjoy the thrill of some good armchair gardening. Browse through seed and plant catalogues and dream of the displays you will have in your garden later this year. For me that is one of the most enjoyable thoughts during the winter. Next year will always be better!       

(Marina Christopher - January 2013)

Marina runs her nursery by appointment - simply contact her first. She is also on the panel for our Gardeners Question Time on Wednesday 13th March.

Tags: alitex, alitex greenhouses, alitex conservatories, Marina Christopher, Phoenix Perennials