It’s not all about the Holly & the Ivy

It’s December. Again. Cold, wet, grey and miserable December. Although, amidst the seasonal gloom, clear, frosty, blue sky days are dotted intermittently across the month. Predominantly though, a seemingly never-ending succession of murky mornings and early nightfalls. Rain-laden clouds scud across leaden skies; persistent and heavy rains fall onto already sodden gardens. From dark, shadowy houses, christmas lights twinkle silently from behind misty windows into the cold, damp night. 

As a garden writer, I happily join my fellow scribes to wax lyrical about the abundant joys of spring, summer and autumn gardens with their burgeoning borders; kaleidoscopic, coloured flowers jostling for centre stage. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page crammed with glorious descriptions of the seasonal bouquets Mother Nature has gifted us; stunning colour combinations, glorious scents, and myriad flowers all detailed in meticulous minutiae. And then, as winter blows in on a biting northerly wind, our gardens slip into a deep, hushed hibernation; dull, grey and expressionless. 

But there is still beauty within the winter landscape; a subtle, understated beauty. Fleeting moments that can disappear or change with a squall of wintery wind. A winter’s walk around the neighbourhood wrapped in an oversized, warm coat, woolly hat and gloves, peering into empty gardens or a stroll through a local park, is the perfect way to explore these bashful, seasonal splendours. 

Trees bereft of their summer leafage, stand strong, yet exposed and naked. The delicate tracery of wet Silver Birch branches and their soft twigs silhouetted forlornly against silver-grey skies; the last red, terracotta, butter yellow and golden leaves of Beech, Horse Chestnut and Liquidamber dotted forlornly within their empty boughs. 

In the gutters and the black, puddled pavements lie the dying remnants of autumn’s leafy vestiges; black, burnt browns and coffee-coloured leaves lie wet and lifeless. In between the drifts of dying debris, crescent shaped puddles reflect the skies and the twisted reflections of the trees above. 

Along the main road, evergreen shrubs stand sentinel like on the boundary between pavement and front gardens. Fruits of Arbutus hang like bonsai baubles on a Christmas tree. The rain soaked berries of Holly nestled amongst dark green, prickly foliage. On the Pyracantha, clusters of beautiful berries wink seductively at our famished feathered friends. Vitamin filled vermillion will be taken first, followed by orange, then yellow.

In the somewhat barren borders of my own garden, the early flowers of Hellebores in rubies, pinks and whites nod coquettishly. They whisper at passers-by to lift their downturned blooms skywards to reveal their hidden treasures. A boss of golden stamens nestled in a bowl of intricately patterned or stained glass coloured tepals. 

In the same borders, columns of the bleached, golden stems of grasses, mine are Miscanthus ‘Flamingo’, stand statuesque, flower heads buckling like wizened fingers in the breeze. 

In a garden across the road from me the colourful, seasonal stems of Cornus stand defiantly in shades of red, orange and lime-green. A drift of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ a blaze of vibrant, hot colour across frost gilded borders. For larger gardens or parks, the ghostly, chalk-white stems of Rubus cockburnianus look magnificent, contrasting against their dark backgrounds like the intricate, fossilised bones of a prehistoric carcass. 

The diminutive flowers of Chimonanthus praecox and Sarcococca confusa lace the winter garden with their beautifully, intoxicating scents. 

And so, it’s December. Again. Cold and wet? Yes But miserable? No, not at all. The gifts may not be of gold, of frankincense or myrrh; but there’s so much more than just the holly and the ivy. 

Author: Mike the Gardener

Freelance gardening writer, consultant and designer. Mike Palmer is a passionate and professional plantsman, offering services in garden writing, consultancy and garden design. Mike is also available for garden and plant related talks and presentations. Mike has been a professional horticulturalist for over fifteen years.

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