Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I have a problem with snowdrops...

...the beasties just won't grow in the garden.  I'm not even talking about exotic snowdrops.  Just the common Galanthus nivalis and it's varieties, whether penny plain or twopenny fancy.

It's not as though I haven't tried.  When I first moved in I brought some with me, dug up from my old garden.  Single, double and a couple of varieties, the large flowered 'Sam Arnott' and green tipped 'Scharlockii' .  They came up the first winter and then declined.  OK, the soil and conditions may not have been entirely suitable but they weren't that much different to my previous garden and these snowdrops multiplied well on that site.

So, having failed once, I restocked.  And failed again.  But this time I'd carefully prepared some suitable spots - moist but well drained woodsy soil, summer shade, winter sun.  So failure was unexpected.  So I tried again.  And again.  Pot grown plants, bulbs, plants 'in the green' - all failed to thrive and steadily dwindled in following years.  And I don't know why.  The soil pH is fine - about 6.5, fertile enough to judge by how well other plants grow, of suitable texture.  It's not the climate - snowdrops grow beautifully in the local area, colonising swathes of local hedgerow and forming extensive colonies in local gardens.  It's not my local slugs and snails - they're partial to the flowers but leave the mucilaginous leaves alone.  In short, I'm doing everything right - but still failing miserably.

It's said that the definition of futility is repeating the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.  That probably sums up my attempts to grow snowdrops in my current garden.  On the other hand it's the season for buying plants in pots or in the green, the best way of establishing them.  And it's so tempting.  I just want to see this:

Snowdrops naturalised in a local hedgerow
 Or this:

Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Plena'
In my previous garden I'd started to collect snowdrops.  Now I can't even grow them.  Such is the gardener's lot.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More winter scent

After writing about Sarcococca and it's penetrating winter scent yesterday I was reminded of another distinctive winter scent this morning.

As always, I had my dogs out for their early morning walk.  It's not that long, about 3 miles / 5 km for me, 2 - 3 times that for them.  Virtually all of it through local grass and woodland.  It was the sort of winter morning that we always wish for - but rarely get in our damp winters.  Dry, the sun just beginning to raise the temperature to melt off the tiny traces of overnight frost, hovering mist over the grassy areas with deeper clouds in the distant view of the Tamar, cool and fresh.  I like to vary the route and this morning I took one I hadn't gone down for a while.

The walk was nearly over when the scent hit me.  Winter heliotrope, Petasites fragrans.  Absolutely distinctive though difficult to describe.  A combination of almonds and vanilla is the best I can manage although if you've ever smelt any of the older, more heavily scented varieties of the heliotrope sold as summer bedding or container plants, Heliotropium arborescens, you'll know exactly what I mean.  I was at least 20 yards / metres from the plants, a good indication of the penetrating power of the fragrance.  All this from a head of whispy little flowers above carpets of quite attractive rounded leaves.

Petasites fragrans - Winter Heliotrope
This is not one for the garden.  Introduced to the UK from it's North African homeland it's an extremely persistent weed, regenerating from the tiniest bit of root and spreading to form large patches within a short time.  It's widespread in woods and hedgerows down here despite all the plants in the UK being male - an indication of it's spreading power and persistence.  The patch in my local wood probably came in with some rubble that was dumped where a building site once adjoined the area.

For all it's invasive habits I still welcome that sharp, distinctive winter scent.  Long may it refresh my winter walks - although if it gets too close I'm moving!

Monday, January 9, 2012

A winter scent

We're having a very mild early winter here in Plymouth.  OK its been cool and wet but we've had no significant frost so far.  Which means everything is ahead of schedule.  For the last two days it's been mild and still, perfect for my few scented winter flowerers to perfume the air.  Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles' has a very mild scent that needs a good close up sniff for any impact.  Mahonia japonica has been flowering for a while now but is still giving off gentle wafts of sweet scent when I brush past it.  Even the winter flowering Iris, Iris unguicularis is producing the odd sweetly scented flower even though I'm sure it would prefer somewhere drier than my rather damp garden.  But the strongest of them all is the unassuming little winter box, Sarcococca confusa.

It's early this year.  Normally it flowers in February.  But, for the last two days I've been hit by a fabulous vanilla scent as I enter or leave the house by the front entrance.  The plant can be yards away from the point where the fragrance first hits but there is no mistaking the impact.  It will continue for three to four weeks, at its best on still days but still obvious even on our frequent windy ones.  Then it will go to sleep again for the rest of the year.

It's not a pretty plant.  Just a small, very hardy shrub with non-descript oval, evergreen leaves and a rather untidy habit that needs a good trim after flowering.  The flowers are small - whispy, white affairs.  It produces berries in abundance - small black ones that even the birds ignore - but these don't stand out as a decorative feature in their own right.  So, for eleven months of the year it's a bit of a waste of space.  But, oh, the scent as the year is turning more than justifies the space it occupies in my shady front garden.

Sarcococca confusa winter flowers
Sarcococca humilis and S.hookeriana are both very similar.  Frankly, it doesn't matter which one you choose, the results will be the same.  You only need one plant - and that can be hidden away in any shaded spot that's available.  Provided it's within scenting distance - and that can yards away.