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Garden Centre

What are we gardeners doing or thinking about in winter? To an extent, we are worrying about the present, though it might be wiser to dig those drains when the ground has dried out a bit.

If you have to be out there, make sure you are as comfortable as is possible in the circumstances. Put on plenty of layers of clothing; make yourself watertight; have several changes of dry gloves. If you must plant, be light in your touch and don't compress the soil. Above all, don't tread on and compact it, making it lose structure and air spaces.

Planning for the next year is, one might say, a good excuse for being inside and warm. You can get inspiration from browsing through catalogues and well illustrated gardening books. But to confine your planning to the winter is sheer escapism; it should be a part of the whole year's thinking.

Indeed, you can usually get a far clearer picture in summer, when it's all actively in front of you, of what changes and improvements are desirable. That's where the vital garden notebook comes in, capturing the brilliant thought that has come into your head and setting it down forthwith, before it is lost. The notebook should be small enough to be carried around or slipped into a pocket and it should have waterproof covers.

Always keep yourself on the rails by noting the date of any entry. It doesn't matter how grubby and battered the book becomes. Read over what you have written within the next day and when you've come indoors. That way you can be sure to read your own writing and also to fix the place and occasion in your mind (it may be in your own garden or it may be in someone else's).

Many improvements are just a question of minor adjustments, rather than out-and-out planning. In fact, I'm not keen on plans, as the site always looks different once you're on it. In a few weeks, you'll be enjoying the appearance of one of the earliest daffodils, the little yellow trumpet, 'Tete-a-Tete'. It is so small that there are many spots where it can simply be left to get on with its life, whether active or dormant, and will not be in the way.

Under a deciduous shrub, for instance. Look around you and think where else it might be nice to see some of it. Stock soon increases, so it won't be long before you have enough to spread around. Then think, what would it be nice to see with this little fellow that would make a good companion at the same time?

My own answer, here, is primroses - the unimproved wild primrose. You don't have to (must not, in fact) dig it up from the wild. A plant is easily bought or grown from seed and will soon be large enough to be divided. The primrose is pale yellow; the narcissus, deep yellow and they are well contrasted in shape.

Anyone else to join the party? Well, what about some bulbs of the little Iris reticulata? Purple is wonderfully highlighted by yellow and again we have a different shape but a flowering season that coincides. And this iris can easily multiply if left undisturbed in the garden, as it never would were you growing it in a pot. To own whole clumps of it, thick with blossom, will be a source of great pride.

For a site, I am still invoking the protection of some deciduous shrub - it might be a weigela or a deutzia - which is itself doing nothing at this season, so that there is plenty of light beneath it.

Another good spot is around some hardy perennial, which takes up a lot of space in summer but retires to virtually nothing in winter. A number of hardy cranesbills come to mind. Geranium 'Ann Folkard' would be ideal. There is always a great deal of space around a single plant of this, in winter, and that space will remain vacant until well into May, by which time the bulbs will naturally be dying down and the primrose can put up with any amount of summer shade anyway.

You should surely be growing more snowdrops and there's currently so much ground doing nothing where they'd be happy. For an accompaniment I always think that the marbled foliage of hardy Cyclamen hederifolium looks ideal as a background to them.

All this is just a start to the year but can go on in every week through the seasons. Plan now on paper for the summer by all means, and make lists of the plants you yearn to have, but be prepared for some major rethinking when that time actually comes along.

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Other Christopher Lloyd Articles
   Autumn Pruning        Bountiful Bulbs
   Christopher Lloyd visits Scotland        Inheriting the Earth
   On Hindsight...        Preparing for an Exotic Late Summer
   Starting Out - Do's and Dont's        While the Sun Shines?
   Winter Planning        Winter Skeletons