IVY, BERRIES AND THE FIRST SIGHT OF SNOW
On the cusp of December, on a day of thin winter sunshine, I visit Great Dixter (http://wwwgreatdixter.com) for the last time this year. The garden is still ablaze with the crimson berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis. In one celebratory combination the orange berries of Iris foetidus burst up brilliantly through its fan-shaped branches.
Round the corner in the sunken Barn Garden, something completely magical and unexpected is waiting for us.
In the inky stillness of the hexagonal pond, floats an ethereal flame-red reflection of the cotoneaster on the steps above. I have visited this garden at least once a month for a year but this dramatic reflection is new and takes my breath away.Looking up from its painterly centre, the whole garden seems to be playing out a great end- of-year finale – the naked branches of fan trained fig a dynamic firework at one corner, balanced by the solid, rounded green of the Osmanthus delavayi at the other.
The mood is festive. In the Orchard there is an apple tree as fine as any Christmas tree – a majestic spread of dark branches with pale yellow apples for baubles:
There is a wonderful ivy nearby which I have admired all year – Hedera helix ‘Buttercup’. The leaves of ‘Buttercup’ are lime green to dark green in shade, but a brilliant milky yellow-gold in full sun. At Dixter it is grown as a fine, ordered garland over a barn roof:
Another brilliant ivy to recommend at this time of year is Hedera helix ‘Maple Leaf’ – with dark green, glossy, five lobed leaves. It is a fast grower and at the Prieuré d’Orsan (see my post on this beautiful garden in December 2013) clads an entire shady wall with a smart coat of rich green. Both ivies can be sourced at http://www.fibrex.co.uk .
A few days later and the ancient oak trees at Ickworth Park in Suffolk make an elegant scene of dull hazy gold against green (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk) .
At the park entrance there is a cottage with the sort of fairy tale planting which makes you promise to plant yourself a small yew tree in 2014. You may have to wait a while until you get such a gorgeous fat green, bulging creature on your doorstep – but it would surely be worth the wait?
Of course, if you can also find a champion Copper Beech to tower brilliantly over your little house – even better.
A short drive away, the King’s Forest is glowing with horizontal tiers of yellow-gold and bronze:
Within the forest there is a wonderful 7 acre treasure trove of a garden called Fuller’s Mill (http://fullersmillgarden.org.uk). Here the porcelain-white berries of Sorbus ursina hang with covetable elegance and clarity.
If you wanted to buy a similar Sorbus, choose a Sorbus cashmiriana – a very pretty small tree with soft pink flowers in late spring, and clusters of marble white fruits in autumn. The fruits often well into winter. Try either http://ashwoodnurseries.com or http://bluebellnursery.com – both wonderful nurseries.
Further on in the garden, the fruits of Euonymus elatus ‘Compactus’ are gorgeous tiny luminous bulbs in a delicious tangle of papery purple calyx and fine naked branches.
And the week before Christmas I am in a tiny skiing village in Austria. Here the houses are framed with dense ranks of deep green spruce and the lacy branches of red berried Mountain Ash. It is wonderful to see native trees growing simply and plentifully where they are happiest on fertile well-drained soil on a mountain slope.
The Rowan berries are shiny and festive in the winter sunlight. We ate two kinds of rowan berries last night for supper with pigeon paté,: they were almost bitter but rather good against the richness of the meat. As the light fades at the end of the day, the clusters make elegant drooping patterns against the mountain sky:I love the beautiful scalloped tiles – made of spruce – which clad entire buildings.
Cladding buildings like this is the work of farmers during the snowbound winter. The tiles last for about twenty years and age to a wonderful smokey darkness.
Even the plain rectangular tiles are softly lovely:I like the idea of this handsome door – slim logs painted with a pale grey stencil: And I have a soft spot for this painted shield with a message of welcome above the door. But my real discovery this week is the larch. I have never really enjoyed it before, despite my attempts to appreciate an often slightly shabby specimen of Europe’s only deciduous conifer on a tour of an arboretum. But here I am enchanted by its regal stature and elegance: by the soft gold of its needles against the cherry red of the rowan fruits:and by the ethereal way it catches the sun and lights up the valley bottom – a soft ghostly gold against velvety green against the white mountain.