Monday, 30 November -0001

Clemmie Hambro’s gardening week 17th Feb

Clemmie salutes the stalwart specimens whose flowers sing away in the darkness to brighten the cold, dark February days

Written by Clemmie Hambro

It has been very cold. We have even had some snow, which was lovely, but of course the whole family got colds again. I had just managed to banish the last lot and now all of us are sneezing, coughing, feverish and, in the case of the baby, screaming the place down. All of which goes towards holding up my theory that February is without a doubt the most testing month of the year. I loathe it. And this year is a leap year, so it is a WHOLE DAY longer than usual.

Anyhow, as the snow lies melting quietly, turning the garden into a sodden slush pit, I am struck by a couple of plants out there that need a medal or two for sheer bravery. I know we discussed a few stalwarts the other week, but most of those were of the ‘pretty stem’ variety, which although admirable, is not actually brave. They just happen to be alluring in their naked state. So, I would like to give a little salute to the plants in my garden that not only lift my heart, but also have my total respect, for flowering while everyone else would rather be in Antigua.

The first is the snowdrop. There isn’t a much braver, steelier, more determined plant than the snowdrop. They might be dainty to look at, but underneath that porcelain exterior lurks the heart of a lion. I mean, who in their right mind decides to poke their head above ground, into the iron-grip of winter, when the entire rest of the world is either dead, asleep or hiding inside with a sniffy nose, watching reruns of The West Wing.

The Galanthophiles among us will have all sorts of rare cultivars to rave about, but in my view nothing much beats Galanthus nivalis for sheer simple beauty and its ability to colonise quickly and easily. One of my favourite poems in the world is Snowdrop by Ted Hughes, who understood that the snowdrop is in fact a warrior queen rather than a misguided little wallflower: ‘She, too, pursues her ends/Brutal as the stars of this month/Her pale head heavy as metal.

Second on my list is a plant that I never used to like at all, until I grew it. I simply just didn’t think it was very attractive and found myself being quite sniffy about it. But as we speak, Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ is sitting quietly on a miserable easterly wall with its silver tassels trembling in the wind like a beautiful French curtain.

It has that useful combination of adding some sturdy evergreen structure to your garden but all the while maintaining movement, grace and charm. It is a small genus of only about 13 species, with male and female catkins being borne on separate plants. The male is generally the more attractive, with ‘James Roof’ having the longest tassels. Again, it might look like a delicate, long-legged sprinter, but in fact has the lungs of a long-distance runner.

Thirdly, I would like to mention the hellebore – a winter stalwart (believed to have been cultivated by the Romans). Helleborus orientalis ‘Harvington Hybrids’ are the most popular cultivars on the market and come in a wide range of colours. But my absolute favourite is the rather leathery- leaved Helleborus argutifolius or Corsican hellebore, which has the most divine, lime-green flowers from about January to April. The colour is something that one would not associate with deep winter – acid green being a decidedly spring-like colour. But there it is, singing away in the
cold darkness like a cool glass of lemonade on a hot day.

In all types of hellebore, cut down old leaves, which can look a bit browbeaten, in January in order to enjoy the emergent flowers to their full.

I know there are many more worthy contenders in this category but today, on this cold, dark February morning, these are the ones I have pinned my medals on.




Sarah Langton-Lockton on her allotment

I WAS ONCE A MEMBER of the judging panel for some prestigious regional architectural awards. We hurtled across the West Country for the best part of a week, invariably arriving at our modest hotel just after the kitchen had closed for the night. Usually, some kind soul would rustle up a hearty sandwich, which would lie heavily on our stomachs, having followed sandwiches for lunch. Fortunately, the buildings we saw more than compensated for our stodgy diet. One was an apparently primitive stone barn, inside transformed by complex technology into a sophisticated theatre. The tiny space the machinery left for the audience was unadorned except, on a high lintel, for a single line of potatoes, like a row of stones, chitting in the bright, cold room.

The aesthetics of chitting are the least of my worries, but I do love the rituals – the saving up of egg boxes over winter, the careful examination of tubers to discover the rose end (the one with the most eyes), placing the tubers rose end uppermost in the egg boxes and laying them out neatly, out of direct sun, in my northfacing spare bedroom. Strong shoots sprout from the eyes within a few weeks, and when they are about 2.5cm (1in) long, the tubers are ready to plant.

Potatoes have shot ahead as the crop that most takes people’s fancy. And potato days are an established attraction for the growing numbers of gardeners for whom lifting potatoes circumspectly from the concealing earth will always provide one of vegetable growing’s greatest thrills. The Garden Museum in Lambeth is holding its third annual potato
day, this time a Potato Saturday, on 25 February. Pennard Plants will again be in residence at the museum, offering more than 80 varieties, from familiar maincrop potatoes to unusual heritage varieties. Except for ‘Vitelotte’, of which more in a moment, all potatoes are available singly at 20p, encouraging experimentation and the chance to grow unusual and rare varieties not otherwise available. There will be seeds, rhubarb crowns, soft fruit and horseradish roots, and sundries such as Garden Gro-Sacks, at £3.50 each or three for £10.

‘Vitelotte’ is one of the most unusual varieties, a French maincrop salad variety that came originally from Peru and Bolivia, and is still grown there. It has been cultivated in France since 1850 as a gourmet delicacy. In Germany it is known as the truffle potato. It has unusually long tubers with dark purple skin and purple flesh that keeps its colour after cooking, and a nutty flavour similar to chestnuts. A little bag of six of these precious tubers costs £2. Pennard Plants also recommends ‘Mr Little’s Yetholme Gypsy’, which has red and blue skin overlaying white flesh, and a good, floury second early, and ‘British Queen’ – suitably patriotic and perfect for celebrating the Diamond Jubilee.

The museum’s Garden Café will serve a potato-friendly menu, and there will be supervised potato printing for children, with tea towels to take home. A perfect outing for a food-growing family.

Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1: 020- 7401 8865, – Potato Saturday is on 25 February, from 10.30am to 4pm. Admission: £6, or £5 concessions.

Pennard Plants: 01749-860039,

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