Monday, 30 November -0001

Clemmie Hambro's gardening week 3rd feb

To lift the spirits in the dreary weeks before spring, spread some February cheer with eye-catching plants that shimmer, sparkle and glow

Written by Clemmie Hambro
Well, here we are in February, deep in the badlands of winter. Not much to look at out there and not much to look forward to – no parties, no excuse for too much red wine and an extra helping... And the exhausting knowledge that there is an awful lot more of 'this' to get through till we emerge blinking into the spring, with a great deal more padding around the middle than when we started.

Having said that, it did get a bit exciting this week. It got properly cold for the first time since, well, it was meant to get cold. Crisp slicks of frost have danced over the length and breadth of the country, giving a horrid fright to all those poor plants that had poked their noses up too early thinking spring was springing. It will be interesting to see if the early da  odils we are seeing survive. Not to mention the phalanxes of confused, hibernating creatures that had already emerged into the damp balminess, only to be collared by Jack Frost. Fingers crossed they found a morsel to eat and went back to their nests to sleep.

Anyhow, warm or cold, it is a long stretch till spring so the best thing to do, until winter unclenches its fist, is to settle down and appreciate what is working in our gardens to give us some early February cheer. For me, the star of my garden at this precise moment is my Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii. Bit of a mouthful, but in my humble opinion, a braver, hardier, more relentlessly cheerful plant is hard to find.

It's an upright, evergreen shrub with enormous loo-brush-shaped blooms (well, technically they are called cyathia) with purply-brown eyes and zingy acid yellow/ green colour. It is very dominant in the border, and looks great with pinks, oranges and purples. It also looks very e  ective planted en masse, as it is a good balance of flowery blowsiness and sturdy 'architecuralness'. I put some in every border I plant because they give such satisfaction.

Another spirit-lifting sight at this time of year is the shimmering Himalayan birch with its intensely silver-white bark. Betula utilis var. jacquemontii 'Silver Shadow' is a winner and you don't need much room in an ornamental garden to pop one in. They can cope with most conditions but tend to prefer dappled shade and loathe chalky soil (it sulks and gets yellow leaves). It has to be said, however, that to get the real wow factor it is worth planting at least three together. Then you get the full impact of the splendidly eerie white bark on a grey day. Just go to Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire to see what I'm talking about.

If white stems on a dull day are your thing, then look no further than the fastgrowing, elegantly arching, tough-as-oldboots Rubus cockburnianus. This ornamental bramble will flourish in most places and provides dark-green foliage, purple flowers and inedible berries in spring and summer. Yet, in the winter it reveals its magnificent blue/silver tentacles and will sit in a corner and shimmer into the gloom.

Of course, we can't talk about stems without mentioning the diligent dogwoods that are busy doing their thing now. I have written before about the many forms you can choose for your garden, so I won't bore you again, but I would like to give a big shout out to the delicate Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' that is quietly fizzing outside my window as I write. Less bright and chunky than its more popular cousin Cornus alba 'Sibirica', it cuts a daintier figure with its orangey-red spidery limbs. It is more of a sparkler than a firework, but gives a lovely light nevertheless.




Sarah Langton-Lockton on her allotment 

Lingering frosts and a succession of cold, sharp days have kept me huddling in the kitchen, the warmest spot in an under-heated house. Packages of seeds and sundries have been arriving to keep me entertained.

The most exciting so far contained a Garland Super 7 Electric Propagator, acquired from Suttons Seeds for the modest price of £33.95, plus, of course, p&p. The Super 7 is exactly the right size for my main kitchen window, that fortuitously has a socket nearby. The propagator has seven mini trays and vented lids to cater for a range of seedlings. I have been coveting one for ages so that I can get tomatoes, aubergines, cucumber and peppers off to a flying start.

Tomato experts are warning us of virulent new strains of late blight on tomatoes, making it increasingly risky growing them outside. For this reason I am stepping up my indoor tomatoes, even though these too were largely wiped out by blight last summer. The one variety that survived unscathed in the greenhouse was 'Rosada F1', a graceful, tall cordon with many small tresses of elongated cherry plum tomatoes with plenty of flavour. Not only was this plant completely blight-resistant, it went on fruiting valiantly until well into November and was a favourite with the granddaughter who is a tomato connoisseur. Other tomato plantlets on order from Simpson's Seeds are old favourites 'Costoluto Fiorentino', with its largish orangey/red fruit ribbed like a chocolate orange, the gorgeous striped 'Green Zebra' and the almost seedless 'Black Krim', the best salad tomato I have grown. These are all for the greenhouse, but I shall also grow lots of cherry tomatoes in pots in the garden. The best tasting of these are 'Black Cherry', although they have an annoying habit of splitting when ripe, either on the bush or just after picking.

My favourite winter vegetable, both for its striking beauty and its delicate, nutty flavour, is Broccolo Romanesco. Seeds are increasingly available from seed merchants, but rarely do they offer named cultivars. I was excited therefore to discover in the Suttons Seeds catalogue their 'Romanesco Continuity Collection', comprising 18 plug plants, six of each variety of 'Gitano', 'Lazio' and 'Colosseo'. According to my gardening notebook, 'Lazio', if sown from March to May, will crop from September to December, and 'Gitano', a mildew-resistant cultivar, crops between September and November. I have no information about 'Colosseo', but the name promises much. Romanesco broccoli is tricky to grow and in a bad year on my plot the heads fail to attain the fractal perfection of those in the farmers' markets, and are often quite small. Websites and vegetable growers' handbooks refer ominously to the need to cater for the usual brassica pests. The plants are larger than cauliflowers or regular broccoli, and need a good 60cm between plants each way.

I have cut right back on my potato order this year, resisting all temptation from Pennard Plants, and am just growing a kilo of tubers of the irresistible 'Roseval', with its delicious pink-flushed flesh, so in theory have plenty of space. The optimism of gardeners springs eternal!


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