With record temperatures for February, we are making the most of the sunny days here in Norfolk. Spring really does seem to have come early with blossom appearing on our apricot tree and pulmonarias, grape hyacinths, daffodils and primroses all blooming early alongside the more traditional February fare of snowdrops, crocus and hellebores.
I do have to keep reminding myself that the 'Beast from the East' struck in early March last year and we had so much snow that the shops ran out of milk and bread. There is a chance of the wintery weather returning so it's important not to go too mad and plant out anything frost-tender until later in the year.
In the meantime, I will enjoy the early flowers, picking a few to bring inside for tiny spring posies and I'll finalise my plans for the annuals that I will grow this year.
I plan to sow some sweet peas under cover this weekend and will start sowing some hardy annuals in a week or two, once March is underway. There are some annuals that I always grow - cornflowers, marigolds, sweet peas and scabious, but I might not choose the same colours or varieties to grow each year. In this way, each year is different and there will be something new and exciting to place in the vase.
Winter is a time to take stock. Once you've dug up or mulched your dahlias, planted your spring bulbs and cut down and composted the annuals, you have time to assess your garden space. Look back at what worked this year and what you would change.
Although things have slowed down, there are still treasures to be discovered in the garden. Winter-flowering shrubs really do come into their own at this time of year and many of them are highly scented. A few sprigs of Viburnum bodnatense brought into the house will scent a whole room.
We have a lovely winter flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtilla autumnalis) at the front of the house which flowers throughout autumn and winter. A few cut branches brought into the house when in bud will gradually unfurl to reveal pretty cherry blossom flowers.
This year, my Hellebores have been early to flower, starting back in November. They are one of my favourite winter flowers and can be relied upon to flower usually from December/January all the way into March. Every cutting garden should include them.
If, like me, you planted some paperwhite narcissi in the autumn, they should now be ready to bring into the house. A big pot of these bulbs makes an elegant and fragrant display. Forced Hyacinths are another option. Mine sadly have to be relegated to the table in our courtyard garden as their scent is a bit too strong and seems to give me a splitting headache.
I hosted my first ever wreath-making workshop this December and it was such a fun, festive day. Some lovely friends attended and we used foraged materials - Holly, Ivy, Yew, Christmas tree trimmings, Rosehips, Sage, Virburnum tinus, Rosemary, Clematis seed heads, Catkins, Bay, Mistletoe and Alder cones to make our wreaths.
We used grapevine wreath bases as they are a natural material and are perfect for poking in stems of cut material. We wired bunches of foliage to the wreath and then added highlights of rosehips etc.. to fill in any gaps or to hide any wire left exposed.
Attach your hanging ribbon at the start.
Wire everything in tightly and overlap successive bunches of foliage so that each bunch hides the wired-in stems of the preceeding bunch.
Attach your foliage bunches so that stems all face in one direction around the wreath.
Even the most craft-phobic of us were really pleased with the results (pictured below) and surprised at how artistic they could be. I'm not sure if the mulled wine actually helped us but it certainly added to the festive spirit.
Winter is approaching - we've had the first frosts which have blackened the Dahlia foliage and killed off the half-hardy Zinnias. My Cosmos seem to have escaped this fate owing to their height (over 6 ft this year!) and are still in full flower.
Once dahlias have been blackened by frost, it's time to cut them down and either dig them up for storage inside over the winter or to apply a thick mulch to protect them. Annuals which have given up the ghost should be removed and composted and empty beds given a covering of organic matter - compost or manure. It can be left on the soil surface for the worms to drag down and enrich the soil over the winter. Where I have planted out biennials, I just mulch around them.
As an avid watcher of predicted overnight temperatures, I dug up my frost-tender Chrysanthemums before any danger of frost. Late-flowering Chrysanthemums like the elegant 'Avignon Pink' don't start flowering until the end of October and will flower up until Christmas. You can either grow them in pots which can be brought in under cover or plant out over the summer and then carefully dig them up with an intact root ball and place them in large pots in a greenhouse/conservatory or potting shed. I find them really useful additions to fresh Christmas wreaths as they are very long-lasting flowers once cut.
I sowed some hardy '10 week' Stocks and Chinese Forget-me-nots late in June and these are still full of flower, so along with some Borage and Feverfew still in flower, a suprisingly summery jug of flowers can be picked even in November.
Viburnum tinus is a shrub that is overlooked for a lot of the year but come October/November it is flooded in fragrant white flowers. These are invaluable just when the herbs that I use for foliage/filler material in a vase (like Borage, Mint and Feverfew) are coming to an end. The baton is handed to this evergreen shrub for most of my winter flower displays and trimmings look good in a fresh Christmas wreath.