Hartley Magazine

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Winter Distractions

Winter at Spring Cottage

As many of you may know I live in the wonderfully named village of Cold Aston, up above Bourton on the Water, and it lives up to its name wonderfully well because it’s chilly throughout the year.  Many gardeners get my village mixed up with Cold Aston near Bath, the home of Derry Watkin’s Special Plants nursery. However Derry is positively balmy compared to me. She manages to get an orange geum called ‘Prinses Juliana’ to flower with her almost-black single late tulip ‘Queen of Night’. That could never happen here because spring arrives a little late so that geum doesn’t perform here until June!

At this time of year I know that winter is on the horizon because events follow a certain pattern. A month before the clocks go back, the lane down to Northleach is always peppered with dozens of pheasants and French partridges. You have to pick your way along through the throng. The pheasants seem the most sensible. They part, as the Red Sea did for Moses and the Israelites, veering off to the verge. The French partridges are definitely dafter. Groups of them run along the road in front of the car until sufficient speed allows them to take off. I haven’t killed one yet. Their fate awaits though, for we’re going to hear lots of gunshots in the fields in the next few weeks!

The bird traffic problem is worst at dusk, because these feathered lovelies have been fed twice a day since July so they’ve been accustomed to a man on a quad bike topping up their hopper of food. The feeding frenzy’s stopped now because the birds are plump enough, but they’re not the tidiest of eaters. During the summer months they’ve scattered surplus food round their hoppers and this attracts rats in numbers. Once the feeding stops the rats respond by gravitating towards the village to lurk under bird tables and nest in compost heaps.

Anytime now I know that our shed is likely to get some migrating rats and this means a weekend clean up with rubber gloves, something the Best Beloved and I hate. The shed is rat proof, we think, but I suspect the door gets left open. Soon rat traps, primed with peanut butter, are set. We don’t use poison anymore because it kills across the board and we once found a nest of dead yellow-necked mice which made us both very sad.

Rat traps are vicious things so when the grandchildren come they’re disabled so that they go home with a full set of fingers. On one occasion the Best Beloved got very agitated when he went to reset them again because the peanut butter was missing. “Why did you clean up those traps” he asked in a rather irritable way. Let me tell you that when you’re cooking dinner and tea for ten people, with the so-called help of four boisterous grandchildren, you hardly have time to blink. You certainly don’t think of cleaning peanut butter from rat traps!

The truth was obvious, an enterprising rodent had been in and licked them clean. They are brutal things and we have tried humane rat traps, but rats aren’t daft. They communicate and, once they’ve seen aunty or uncle whimpering in that cage thing, they all avoid it for months and treat it as a roundabout. There is an upside though – or that’s what I tell myself. Rats eat garden snails and we find lots of completely crunched shells by the compost heap, which can also suffer from rats. They’re fond of eggshells so these crunchy favourites aren’t put on the compost heap any more.


Once we’ve got over out winter invasion, which can include voles in the airing cupboard too, we settle in for winter and there’s plenty to do. Winter maintenance is vital in any garden and last year I failed due to being too busy writing The Living Jigsaw. The roses and fruit trees weren’t pruned or trained properly, because they’re wasn’t time. Nothing was cleared along the garden wall, or in the wild bit. Nothing was dug up and divided at the right time and I didn’t have time to perfect the winter tidy and pick up all the dead stems and late-falling leaves from the borders.

This lack of maintenance didn’t really show last winter because winter, even a mild one like last year’s, still strips the garden bare and makes it look neat and minimalist. The box balls and evergreens shone out, a rich-green, as usual. The plumes of late grasses, such as the variegated pampas grass, Cortaderia selloana ‘Silver Feather’ still sashayed in the breeze. No last winter was fine. And so was spring.

The floor show – a male greater spotted woodpecker gets a nut

However the pigeons ( or should that be pheasants and partridges) came home to roost this summer. My roses were leggy and they hadn’t been given their potash-rich food in spring. Some plants such as sedums, which should have been divided, were sparse. No leaf mould was applied to woodland treasures and they suffered more than they would have done in our dry, cold spring of 2017. Many other things were not quite right, because they hadn’t been cleared, pruned or maintained properly.

This year I’ve already started winter work, lifting oversized clumps of perennials, and I’m about to wrestle with rambling roses and bend their stems round supports. Leaf mould is ready to be spread on trilliums and the like. The work load is gentler though and there’s lots to enjoy because the garden shines in a  different way. There are fat fists of buds on the wintersweet and hamamelis, full of promise, although I hope they wait until January to do their thing. There are white noses on snowdrops, peony buds lying in wait and spring bulbs nudging up and set to flower next spring.

Then there’s the view for, once the leaves are off the trees, you can see for miles up here on the Cotswold plateau. The low winter sun, which picks up the dust on the dresser, is doing the same outside with shapes and textures. Birds are winging their way to the seeds and nuts in the feeders and this is a great floor show when you’re eating lunch or breakfast. The garden’s hibernating now, but so am I, and I’m full of expectation for next year and when spring breaks I’ll be raring to go.