The January Garden at Aberglasney
Well here we are at the start of another gardening year hopefully full of optimism for what lies ahead in the garden if still very apprehensive about the continuing pandemic in the world at large. Over the last two years our gardens have proved to be sanctuaries in so many ways and pleasingly many new gardeners have swelled our ranks. I think also that we have begun to garden in different ways which will benefit us as well as the natural world in the years to come. I’m thinking here of our growing realization that we need to use, for example, less plastic, concrete and other impermeable materials, greatly reduce our use of peat and chemicals in the form of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides and also reconsider our use of water in the garden. I also believe that more and more gardeners are beginning to become aware that one of their greatest assets, if not the greatest, in the garden is actually the soil. Not only does it store carbon, water and nutrients a healthy soil forms the basis of what we all hope for from a garden from good looking, healthy plants, wholesome fruit and vegetables and great biodiversity. If you only make one improvement to your garden this year make it to do with your soil and you won’t be disappointed. Simple things such as the addition of more organic matter (but not peat!), less digging and fewer chemicals will go a long way.
Right, sermon over for the year so let’s have a look at what we can look forward to in January. Yes the weather can be harsh and the garden may appear to be still in its winter slumber but there is always more to enjoy than people think with the evergreens providing reassuring shapes and structure, the early bulbs beginning to show through, coloured bark and stems, frost covered seed heads and a few early flowering plants to bring colour, perfume and hope for better things to come.
In our own garden the January stars include evergreens such as our columnar Yew with its golden yellow leaves, Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’, and on the other side of the front path Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’, a small Pine, Pinus mugo ‘Carstens Wintergold, the tips of which turn yellow as the temperatures drop, the red-purple Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ which was pictured in last month’s blog and several Skimmias. As January progresses there are also a number of shrubs which are showing flower buds and the promise of colour and perfume including Witch Hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, Cornus mas the Cornelian Cherry, Sarcoccoca the Christmas Box and our Camellia, C. williamsii ‘Anticipation’. Other shrubs have been in flower since December including Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ with its small, pink, tubular and scented flowers and Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ with its bright yellow spikes of flower. Another shrub, Leycesteria formosa or Pheasant Berry has finished flowering but its berries are being enjoyed in particular by our local Bullfinches who visit several times a day and are a great delight just outside the kitchen side window.
In addition there are attractive bark and stems, grasses and seed heads including the striking silver pennies of Honesty, Lunaria annua, creating interest in various parts of the garden. Finally beneath other shrubs some of the early flowering bulbs are beginning to show their heads and there are signs that the Hellebores are beginning to awaken as early spring approaches. Photographs and more details on all of these can be found in my blog for January 2021.
On our visit to Aberglasney a few days before Christmas the contrast to our last visit in late October was quite remarkable. Gone were all the top growths of the herbaceous perennials and the summer bedding, presumably now filling many of the bays of Aberglasney’s impressive composting area and much of the exposed soil was already top dressed with the final product of those bays, a dark and rich-looking layer of organic matter. The staff and volunteers have clearly been working very hard over the last two months, not only with the cutting back and top dressing but also with the planting of some 40,000 bulbs! This cutting back particularly of the herbaceous plants many of which were large and imposing has revealed the underlying structure of the gardens in terms of stone walls, paths and paving, geometric shapes, shrubs and trees and above all the evergreen backbone of the gardens. Evergreen plants are so important at this time of year and it is always a good time to take stock and decide if more are needed for future years. One really good example of this is in the Upper Walled Garden where the clipped, tall, conical shapes of Yews (Taxus) dominate the planting in this season.
The Upper Walled Garden in late October and late December
Clearly this is a time when the garden has moved into a period of dormancy but there are still highlights to be discovered as in all good gardens and in what follows I will endeavour to show you some of these.
Both the Cloister Garden and the Upper Walled Garden in January are stripped back literally to their bare bones of the walls, paving, paths, grass areas and the conical Yews. On the mansion’s west wall is a lovely Magnolia grandiflora, a plant which often adorns the walls of stately homes. It is an evergreen Magnolia with large, glossy leaves, shiny green above and russet-brown beneath with large creamy flowers in late summer and autumn rather than spring when most other Magnolias flower but be warned you do need a large house to show it off well! At the base of the mansion’s north wall the Arisaemas don’t seem to have realised that January is here, let’s hope that they haven’t been too brave too soon!
The Lower Walled Garden has also completely changed since October when we were admiring the autumn colours and fruits with the bare bones of the step-over apples, the trained apples and pears on the west facing wall and the Crab Apple tunnel taking centre stage now.
The Woodland area is dominated at this time of year by the beauty and grandeur of the bare trees and at ground level a carpet of leaves. Points of interest include some ferns and the Bullrush sculpture in the small pool. Across from this the beds which only two months ago were full of growth and colour have also largely been cleared back to the ground and the team has started to apply the compost mulch. There are a few patches of colour from the leaves of the Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina domestica, the yellow spikes of Mahonia flowers, the first few spidery, yellow flowers of Witch Hazel, Hamamelis, and some lovely grass seed heads but I have to say that the general impression is of an area which is just waiting for winter to end so that it can burst into growth once again.
There is a similar feel to the Sunken Garden where the cheerful, yellow flowers of Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, and the reddish flower buds of Pieris japonica ‘Bonfire’ add some highlights. Just back around the corner near the lake in a recently planted bed another great winter plant caught the eye, Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ with its orange, red and yellow stems lit up by the weak winter sun.
The same plant appears again at the top of the Alpinum on the other side of the gardens and shows that a mass planting if you have the room always works well. Nearby is the newly created and planted Stumpery where Head Gardener Joseph is experimenting with plants that will thrive, or at least survive, in quite dense shade.
Further up the slope in the woodland which leads up to the Asiatic Garden there are some signs that the new gardening year is not too far away with a few early Narcissi in bloom, other spring bulbs beginning to show through, Hellebores starting to show some of their colourful buds and the furry buds of Magnolia beginning to swell. Beneath the Oriental Bridge the one surviving Tree Fern, Dicksonia antarctica, has not yet been affected by frost and nearby there is a reminder that the Christmas Box, Sarcoccoca, will soon be in blossom to fill the air with its heady perfume.
In the Asiatic Garden proper the tracery of twigs and branches of the trees and shrubs and in particular the Maples are a delight in themselves. These are enhanced by flower colour coming from early flowering Camellias against the background of their glossy green leaves. Also, even at this time of year, although deciduous the Hydrangeas still bring a lot to this part of the garden with their wonderful flower heads. Another plant which caught the eye was the humble Hazel, Corylus, with its still tight catkins standing out on the bare branches.
Finally over in the recently planted area near the old gatehouse there are several beautiful evergreen Daphnes with their fragrant flowers in various shades of pink.
If you do get a chance to visit the gardens in the next few months then please make sure that you have a look in the mansion at the stunning photographs of Nigel McCall, Aberglasney’s official photographer, which will be on display in the Main Hall and Bay Window room until March 2022. If you would prefer it you could visit the gardens virtually by having a look at Channel 5’s new series on Great British Gardens presented by Carol Klein. The series follows Carol as she visits a variety of beautiful gardens from across the UK and gets to know the people who nurture and look after them. Aberglasney has featured in an hour-long episode and as filming took place over a twelve month period, including spring of 2020 when the gardens were actually closed to the public, shows how the gardens change over the seasons. To catch up with the episode on line just visit www.channel5.com and, quite rightly in my view, you will find that it is the first episode.
As always the list of jobs for the month can be found in the blog archives for January 2020 and the jobs that we will be doing in our own garden featured in the blog for January 2021. These include tidying up the beds and borders where dead material has begun to look unattractive, some winter pruning on bright, sunny days, repairing and treating trellis and fencing and, albeit a little reluctantly, cleaning pots and seed trays ready for the new season.
I shall be back again in February with details of another visit to Aberglasney but until then keep safe and well and please accept our very best wishes for the New Year.
Keith and Teresa