Garden birdwatchers will know that Starlings have suffered a great decline in recent years but in our area they seem to be holding their own. In nearby Nantwich tens, if not hundreds, of thousands gather in the dusk and fly and wheel about like shoals of fish across the sky. We don't have that number but a large roost has gathered in a neighbours holly hedge and they put on a great display each evening.
A word of warning: take an umbrella if you decide to go out and see a starling display, you'll need it!
January: Early Signs
Walking around the garden today I noticed just how forward some perennials are this year. Our Phlox are shooting already, probably about 3-4 weeks earlier than usual. The buds on Honeysuckle are bursting, Agastache are shooting from base and Miscanthus are starting to grow even before I've cut them back.
Long flowering plants like Malva (right), Osteospermum Lady Leitrim and Dianthus Devon Wizard are still putting forth a few flowers.
Our garden Song Thrush is singing as are Robins and Blackbirds.
Also much in evidence is that slugs and snails have not been idle and our feasting on the new growth of Hemerocallis under cover of the mass of old, dead leaves.
However this mild spell is not set to continue and the forecast for the week ahead is cold with night frosts more typical of January.
This leaves me with the perennial winter quandary: should I cut back stems and uncover crowns of plants to get to the slugs or should I leave a blanket old growth on the plants to protect from frost?
The answer as always is "yes and no". Tough plants like Phlox and Hemerocallis can be cleared and opened up to the birds to get rid of pests whereas, from bitter experience, I know that Asters will suffer if the new growth is exposed just before a cold snap. In the latter case it is best to wait until a mild spell is forecast.
January: Back from the dead
I love Nepeta tuberosa with its soft, felted leaves, upright stems and heads of blue flowers open pink-red buds. They are also an irresistible attraction for bees.
Unfortunately it is on the margins of hardiness in our part of the UK and in the first of the series of cold winters about 3 years ago we lost our stock plants and we weren't able to save any seed. The company we obtained the seed from originally had stopped supplying it. So, lost for good, or so we thought.
Imagine my surprise this summer when 3 or 4 seedlings appeared among some Heleniums where I had refreshed the soil with garden compost. They looked suspiciously familiar and pretty soon I was certain they were Nepeta tuberosa plants back from the dead.
The seed had obviously survived several years in our cold compost heap.
Rather than risk another cold winter I potted them up and put them in our greenhouse and pretty soon they were in flower. The weather wasn't warm enough in September for them to set any seed but hopefully I can keep the plants safe through the winter and begin the task of bulking them up again.
One things for certain, I won' be caught out without any saved seed again so priority for next August and September is collecting as much as possible.
January: Further thoughts on storing plants in compost heaps
This led me to thinking about whole plants as well as seed that survive in a compost heap and whether or not the heap is a good place to store tender plants over winter. This is not a new idea of course, vegetable clamps are a common way of storing root vegetables and these operate on the same principle
Firstly it has to be a cold heap like ours, if you're an efficient compost maker with a hot heap then forgot it!
Many plants survive in the compost heap over winter and this can be a nuisance when you come to try and use the compost. For this reason I never put dandelion roots on the heap:- they can survive even hot heaps.
One year I threw an apparently dead rootstock of the dramatic 6-8ft tall Salvia atrocyanea (picture right) on the compost heap in June, convinced it had had it, only to find its shoots poking out of the heap next April. The same has happened with Kniphofia rhizomes, in fact they survive better in the relative warmth and dryness deep in the heap than they do in pots in cold frame.
When the RHS kindly returned by Kniphofia collection to me after their trial, bare root, wet and rooting in subzero temperatures in late December I wish I had just buried them in the compost heap rather than potting them up and losing the lot.
Hemerocallis likewise survive well but these pretty tough and don't need the protection.
Irises, Geranium that grow from rhizomes, Commelina tubers all of these might be worth a try.
I suspect Dahlias would thrive on this treatment as well, but Dahlias do present a problem. Its not only tubers that like the cosiness of the heap but also mice and voles who would also enjoy a feast of Dahlia in the hungry times of winter. I haven't yet thought of a way of protecting vulnerable plants from this so at the moment my Dahlias are taking their chances in the ground.
January: Fieldfare Feast
Yesterday's snowfall has brought lots of the birds into the garden including a large contingent of Fieldfares. They have been really enjoying the berries on our Cotoneasters.
January: Prickly tomatoes
Last year we bought some unusual tomato relatives: Solanums laiciniata, sysimbrifolium and atropurpureum. All make attractive plants but are not hardy. The former two fruited and we were able to save seed and soon Janet will be sowing them in some heat. S. atropurpurea, the most attractive didn't come into flower until October and so didn't fruit, so I put the pot into our garage near a window. In the very cold recent weather I brought the pot indoors and now I'm in a quandary as it has started to grow and I think it might be a bit too much of a shock to put it back into the garage or cold greenhouse.
Solanum atropurpureum is a very prickly customer with large thorns clothing its purple stems and also along the veins of its purple-green leaves and very handsome, dark and mysterious he is. I'm hoping that like tomato plants I can take cuttings in late spring to get more plants going.
By the way, as a lot of members of the Solanum family bear toxic fruits, don't assume you can eat the fruits of this ornamental tomatoes.
January: Kniphofias - My Red Hot Favourites
I've loved Kniphofias ever since childhood when my dad grew large clumps of an unnamed, traditional Red Hot Poker in our back garden. My mum hated them as just about every snail in the neighbourhood congregated under the dome of leaves in winter. I've always seen this as a merit - I know exactly where to look in January when I'm blitzing slugs and snails in preparation for the spring.
Because Kniphofias look a bit like yuccas or some such and because they come from Africa its easy to jump to the conclusion that they love hot, dry sunny conditions. Of course Africa is a big place and there's lots of different climates. In fact most of the ones grown here come from Southern Africa and a lot of them grow on boggy, peaty ground high up on the plateaux, although some do grow in more tropical conditions; so you do need to know which species grow where.
As a (not invariable) rule of thumb, the narrower the leaves, the less hardy the poker, although there are some narrow-leaved hardy ones - like Brimstone - and some broad-leaved tenderish ones like northiae.
Kniphofia aren't all red hot: there are pale coloured, even white ones and they don't all bloom in summer - there are spring, autumn and even winter blooming ones.
Here are some of my favourites (photos are in order left-right and then down the page):
Alcazar: There are lots of orange Kniphofia but I always return to Alcazar as a reliable high summer bloomer (July- August). Its not too tall - about 2ft 9in - 3ft 3in in flower and makes quite a compact plant.
Bees' Lemon: Along with all the "Bees'" varieties this is a hardy and healthy. Bees' Lemon blooms in August and September and I just love the yellow flowers and green buds together on the heads. "Bees'" varieties come from Arthur Bulley's nursery.
Bressingham Comet: One of the dainty, short, narrow-leaved types probably coming from species like triangularis or galpinii. This one isn't so hardy and needs really good drainage in winter.
caulescens grows up on a short trunk. More or less hardy but the trunk may need protecting in really extreme cold.
Ice Queen: is a wonderful example of a cool poker!
rooperi: is a pretty hardy, if sometimes deciduous, species from South African
stricta: is a hard-to-come-by species from Southern Africa and is one of just two species with "U" shaped leaves - that is with no central keel running along the length of the middle of the leaf. Again it is deciduous in extreme cold but will come again in late spring.
Tawny King: is on everyone's top 5 poker list and the large amber and cream flowers are very showy. Like a lot of poker flower I love them before the buds are fully open when the amber is suffused with olive green.
There are well over 100 varieties and species available in the UK - we have an ever increasing range and we will be addiing more as the year goes on.