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Diary of a Cultural Gardener - November 2020

02 Dec 2020

It has been a month of mellow weather - no frosts, but misty mornings bringing mushrooms into bloom - inkcaps and puffballs amongst the perennials. Dusk rushes in at 4 o’clock and it catches me out like a tide as I hurry to put the tools away in the shed.

The second lockdown has brought another period of closure for the gallery however the garden is still open, and I chat with local people who come for walks, to see the sculptures, or to sit wrapped-up toastily and talk with a friend.

Having completed our big autumn bulb project, November has provided a moment to catch up on other tasks, collecting leaves, mulching and weeding. I have been removing the surplus seedlings of the self-seeders, Knautia and Stipa, which will otherwise hunker down in their hundreds and then grow up rapidly in the spring.

The birds have been busy, with the pigeons flustering up in flocks and then re-settling in rows along the rooftops next to us. The dunnock hops between the hedges all day long, finding snacks amongst the leaf litter and quietly eyeing the blackbird, who clucks and bustles, flipping the soil onto the path in his search for grubs and giving me the daily task of sweeping it all back into the flowerbed after him.

Work on the neighbouring Rutland Mill progresses by Tileyard North and the garden now has a temporary fence along two sides to protect it from the works. Scaffolding cocoons the Victorian mills which we won’t see again until they are unwrapped in their completion. Whilst it will change the vista for a while, it is exciting to see development continuing at a time when many other activities have to be on hold.

Over the past few months, as the light levels have steadily decreased and the temperatures have lowered, the plants have been preparing for winter by drawing their energy into their stores. As the green chlorophyll is no longer needed, other colours in the leaves shine out. November began with the fiery scarlet blazing on our sumac and pin oaks, but as these leaves gradually fell the garden has taken on a new palette, more wintery embers and precious metals, beautiful in contrast with the zesty green lawns and the hellebores preparing for their moment.

Deciduous woody plants cannot afford to run their leaves all year round. The soft fabric of the foliage would not withstand being frozen and so it is a bold move to carefully release all of the leaves in autumn and save energy, ready to build a new set in the spring. As each leaf falls from the branch, the plant shape-shifts, refining its lush green lung down to its living network of wooden limbs, better able to survive winter winds and storms. Similarly, our herbaceous perennials, some by midsummer as tall as a person, cut off the sap flow to their stems and spend the winter underground, persisting in the knobbly storage units which are their roots. The dry vegetation of the perennials remains above, shedding seeds and harbouring hibernating insects until the weather and the magic of decay deconstructs the old material bit by bit. We leave all the old stems in place as long as possible, enjoying the sculptural shapes and linear textures, then gradually removing it all, before the bulbs emerge in the spring.

With day-length still contracting, spring can feel a while away, however it always makes me smile when I get a glimpse that the plants have already prepared for it. If you clear away the leaf litter from the crown of a sedum, there at the base are a cluster of bright new turquoise buds, tightly curled, but ready, patiently waiting to emerge when the conditions are right. The plant has built these buds this year in anticipation of next and it has already prepared to bring the spring again.

Katy Merrington
Cultural Gardener