Sylvia Clare’s Column – Oct/Nov 2013

Published: July 31, 2022


Another day in the Garden – October/November 2013

Late November and early December are such a lovely time of year in the garden, well here on the Isle of Wight they are anyway. Perhaps we are spoiled here but I really enjoy the oncoming cool, dark evenings and dramatic weather as much as I do the lovely light sunshine of early summer; I am always glad when the main heat of the year has passed and I can come outside again at any time of day.

This year the garden has been better than many recently, with the late start to the growing season continuing the theme through until now. So yesterday I was mowing the grass and pulling weeds out that are still germinating. I have also just taken delivery of a lovely truck load of really well composted bark, (it's almost soil already) and the weed free areas are being heavily mulched as I go. As far as I'm concerned the weed growth occurring right now is a good thing since I have time to get them out before they flower and set seed at this time of year and hopefully this is the rash of weed seeds that normally set me up with the annual game of ‘catch us if you' can from March onwards every year. Here's hoping that I might stay on top of weeds next year, possibly, well maybe if that is not too much like wishful thinking.

Mahonia ‘Charity'

Nearly nude Himalayan birches against Clematis armandii and Physocarpus diablo

Prunus amanagowa in autumn leaf colour against holm oak and holly

Recently dug areas waiting for mulching and spring arrivals


The weather has been very mixed, with the storms lashing across the Island early November, which flattened a few things and took a faux gate out, smashed a lovely terracotta amphora style pot and generally showed us the weaknesses in our wind barriers. There have also been some stunning rainbows hanging above us during the wild extremes of weather. Overall we did pretty well and most of our hedges did their job of sheltering the discreet areas that create our garden rooms and create mini micro-climates. We have also started to have frosts, which I love; the crisp chill in the lungs as I go down to let the chickens out just after dawn, and their bustling down their step ladder to a nice warm porridge of pellets soaked in warm water with added chicken vitamins. They are also very partial to the leftovers of our greens from the night before and take little time shredding every last bit of leaf from the outer leaves of cabbages and kales. I love letting them out of their run to scratch about while I clean their house out weekly, and watch them sorting through the leaf litter, their eagle eyes spotting lurking slugs and other unwanted things at ground level. I never worry about decay and leaf litter providing shelter for unwanted pests to over winter in, the chances are that they will be eaten at some point in the next few months. Chickens are great garden companions, they bustle about and chat to you all the time and are just so funny to watch.

Autumn colours, berberis berries and Tibetan cherry barks with collapsing summer foliage

Double rainbows over the castle

More Dogwoods stems poking through the yellowing leaves of Wiegelia

Tibetan cherry against Berberis ‘Helmond Pillar'and a backdrop of sunshine on the far side of the valley


The other splendid thing about this time of year is the light. The late sunshine has such a golden colour. It really highlights the deep burgundy's, oranges and reds of some of the winter colour shrubs like Berberis ‘Helmond pillar', which are covered in small red berries. These have been sent sprawling by winds but they will be pruned and tied back into columns in the spring. For now they fill the spaces where the summer colour has left us, and contrast beautifully against the dark red bark of our circle of six Tibetan Cherries. I love the sense of productive decay everywhere, from death comes life and all life ends in death, a lovely cyclical marking of time, a reminder of how our lives are maturing and developing also and how important this moment is at all times.

Dogwoods against an old brick wall and slightly sunken terrace with views across the fields

Geranium ‘Rosanne'

Late afternoon sun slanting across the valley shadows and hitting the castle, with all the dying forms of foliage in the foreground such as asters, lambs ears a
nd viburnums

Lovely flame leaves of a young euonymous alatus


However what is good in the garden at this time of year is more difficult. I do not indulge in late season Chrysanthemums. Generally one of my plant passions climax slightly earlier, the New England Asters and Rudbeckias, and there's not enough room for Chrysanths too. Really, even with over an acre I have run out of room for everything I want to grow. I just never run out of work to do out there. Mind you, having been at a lovely local HPS meeting this month, where the topic under discussion was Chrysanths, I am wondering if by next year I might have acquired a few cuttings Maybe one of my raised veggie beds could be dedicated to cuttings flowers and as I have just planted out about 300 Narcissi Actea for spring cutting, with the intention of putting courgettes in the centre next spring, I could also put some other plants in there- food for thought over the winter. There were some stunning varieties being shown and shared. However what I have previously planted and focussed on as ever has been winter food for my bees. If indeed they do venture out on a warmish day at this time of year, they need food nearby and enough to make up the energy expended flying plus some to take back to the hive, so I am glad to see both the winter Viburnums in flower, plus Mahonia ‘Charity'and still Geranium ‘Rosanne'with several blooms on the front bank facing the early sunshine, (note to self , multiply this plant as much as you can next year, it is such a stunner). However another reason to tempt me into late Chrysanths was the comment by a dear gardening HPS friend, that hers had been covered in bees from the two hives they have in their garden owned by another local apiarist. I am an easy convert if it helps my bees get through the winter months and I am keeping my fingers crossed that this year they will do well and I can split them and make two colonies next year, having lost both of my colonies last winter.

Scent is a special thing at any time and this time of year it is most essential to tell the bees where there may be food for them. Yesterday it was mild and the bees were out in force around my eleagnus ebbengeii and sarcococcus. I love Christmas Box all year round for its shiny leaves and ability to grow in difficult shady spots. I have two varieties, hookeriana var digyna and confusa, both lovely, the former with coloured stems and lovely slightly pink flushed flowers. None of these flowers has much visual impact but there is an amazing scent as you walk past them in the cold mornings and evenings and this is what the bees love so much, their intricate relationship of pollinator and food source so essential and with so little competition at this time of year.

Still hanging on for weeks our Euonymous europa in deep rich red leaf colour

The other feature of the garden at this time of year is the few areas laid waste by my decisions to dramatically prune back and replant sections of the garden and this autumn three areas were cleared out and planned new re-plantings organised. Bulbs are already dug deep into these areas and some of the plants I removed to split and replant are in, along with other new specimens I have acquired through the last few months. I have others in rooted cutting form in the greenhouse, to go out in spaces as they appear next spring, especially salvias and penstemons. I have been barrowing chippings all over these places as a protective blanket over anything that might be a little bit border line hardy growing here, plus those same blank and apparently empty areas that I shall fill come spring, when the bulbs have shown themselves. It will be great to stop any more weed seeds that were brought to the surface in the clearing out process that might think they should germinate now, not here please, not now at any rate and please go back to sleep. Here's a nice warm blanket for you to snuggle into. And that is how my gardening day ends this time of year, with a lovely warm cuppa and slice of my husband's delicious carrot cake and a blanket over my knees while I rest my back until tomorrow, weather permitting. So gardening is fun even in winter, and there is still plenty to do, although the cutting back I always leave until spring growth has started. There are birds to feed on old seed heads and safe winter harbourage for beneficial insects to lie low in between now and then. There is so much wildlife to take note of too, I am always reminded that I am merely a custodian of this space whilst we live here and it really belongs to them.

Sylvia Clare

Text and photographs by Sylvia Clare, who has been an HPS member for more than 10 years.