Among the midwinter flowers in Sheffield botanical gardens

Mid-way between solstice and equinox, we went to Sheffield Botanical Gardens. Maybe not the best time of year to visit the gardens—there were handwritten signs saying “The gardens still close at 4pm”—but despite the season we still felt welcomed by what flowers there were.

Snowdrops were everywhere, for a start, occasionally accompanied by Leucojum vernum, their snowflake cousins:

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Eggy crocuses (C. flavus), and Creme-eggy crocuses (C. chrysanthus):

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This smashing Garrya elliptica was festooned with little chains of bell-like flowers:

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And around the entrance to the old bear pit—festooning it, indeed—was this amazing Rhododendron “Christmas Cheer”:

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But (and if you’re not a gardener you might not expect this) everywhere we went we were followed around by scents; or maybe we followed them!

There was an isolated Hamamelis mollis “Brevipetala” (left), and then below the fountain banks of witch-hazel, including H. x intermedia “Primavera” and “Aphrodite” (right, plus a squirrel):

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Sheffield hosts the national collection of Sarcococca and we stumbled across this amazing, sweet-smelling bush of it:

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And among all the heathers we found, the queerest was this Erica lusitanica, or Portuguese heath, with an aroma like the inside of a sweet jar:

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All in all, the visit cheered us up on a cold, February day:

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Thanks, Sheffield Botanical Gardens!

Division and subtraction

As a bit of a break from trench digging, I spent a day or so dividing, repotting and tidying indoor and outdoor plants.

On my list was:

Outdoor: Crocosmia.

I’d rescued two pots’ worth of Crocosmia bulbs from behind the Acer before the privet came down and the fencing went up. Given the mudpit that the whole area eventually became, I’m rather glad I did!

To protect the plants, I’d left the old foliage in place all winter, but as green shoots were starting to come through I felt it was time to pull out the brown, dead foliage; it does just come out if you sort of claw at it.

Before… and after:

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Outdoor: hardy perennials

I have a load of hardy perennials I bought at plant festivals and the like, including a Cirsium rivulare, Geum “Prinses Juliana”, Lamprocapnos, Tiarella “Sugar and Spice”, Stipa tenuissima… and two mints that the Welsh Rose had put by them to keep them company.

I’m not sure the Cirsium is going to bounce back from pest attacks, but I pruned back all the dead foliage on everything else, revealing definite new shoots and generally cleaning it all up. The Stipa, like the Crocosmia, benefits from kind of clawing through it: the green shoots stay behind; the brown strands come away, opening up the plant a bit.

Before:

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and after:

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Indoor: repotting and splitting

I needed to do quite a bit of indoor work, not least on the damp-loving inhabitants of the gravel tray: the Ficus elastica “Tineke” has outgrown its small pot; the Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum (peace lily to you and me) even more so, with straggly roots out of the bottom of the pot; and the Billbergia x windii needed splitting into its pups, which was probably the biggest job. Along with all that, a pot rose needed transplanting, a lavender needed trimming etc. etc.

In the absence of a proper shed (it’s about twenty tasks behind the current state of the trenches) I managed to convince the Welsh rose to let me turn our old gatefold table into a temporary potting area:

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This worked a treat, letting me do all the jobs in the warm, and protecting the house plants. Before, the old state of the gravel tray plants:

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And after, we see that WAIT A SECOND:

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Ahem, after, we see that the Billbergia has made four pots, and I hope at least two of them will survive, surrounding the peace lily:

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The Ficus, meanwhile, is now on its own, proud and tall in a corner of the room:

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It’s nice to see this go from small houseplant to big, statement plant. The Welsh rose is a bit worried that the house is getting a 1970s feel; I’m sat listening to my copies of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, and thinking: bring it on.

Digging the first trench for wall footings

I dug a 5m×60cm×50cm trench yesterday. It was hard work.

Although I’d mentioned in passing that the compost bin dismantlement had been entirely completed, I’d never explicitly blogged about the results. From back in December, then:

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With the resulting pile(s) of bricks:

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I counted over a hundred whole, unmortared bricks, and at least as many broken, and at least as many with substantial mortar on them.

The trench for one of our new retaining walls ran straight through the old site of the compost bins: it turns out it also needed to be so wide that I had to remove the trellis you see above, and heave over the rather wonky old planter we inherited from the previous owners, made from bits of decking wood. This being done, I began to dig.

The first couple of metres—under the old site of the bins!—went remarkably smoothly, and I was starting to get cocky, when I removed the slab separating rich bin soil from the rest of the garden, to find… bricks?

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It turned out that there was an entire course of bricks, laid closely together as paving, under the surface:

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Under these ran some of the apple tree’s old roots! Pulling up these bricks yielding yet another decent pile of sound bricks, plus a paving slab and a section of pipe:

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Eventually, with a few mortared bricks still left to clear, I was losing light and so called it a day. Here was the result of some three and a half hours’ work:

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I was able to put my recently acquired scaffolding boards to good use, to ensure I still had a path to the shed:

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All in all I’m really pleased with this result, and I think I can spend another full 7-hour day digging the second, 10-metre trench, without worrying about it too much.

Laying the concrete for the footings will be another job: one which I might get professional advice about, to ensure it’s sound, and level, and thick enough! But I’m going to wait until the next few days of frosts lift, before I worry about any of this again.

Winter textures

On my walk around Sheffield just under a week ago, I took a lot of photos. Some of them made a good photo essay; others had a rather niche appeal….

While the following four scenes might be at best unglamorous (and at worst boring) to others, I’ve been thinking recently about how to make our new garden have both a well architected feel, and also feel like it’s part of the wider Sheffield landscape. I want to use our old York-ish stone, not just because re-use is good for sustainability and the environment, but also because it borrows from “old Sheffield”; similarly, I’d like to borrow from elsewhere nearby.

For example, this path up through a wood suggests that desire lines further from the house could make use of our fragments of brick from dismantling the compost bins:

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Back near the greenhouse and compost bins, this kind of path could work quite well: along with being a time-saver, it would also make the back of the garden feel wilder.

I’m still trying to work out how to top off my retaining walls—made, hopefully, entirely out of reclaimed local stones from the old walls—and these walls around small trees near Ecclesall Woods looked nice:

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Whether I’ll have enough regularly shaped stone to do this or not, we’ll have to see!

I also like the look of these mossy, half-buried sleepers, and wonder if this could be a way of doing steps or some kind of informal culvert:

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And on that note, I should mention that I still have a longing for a water feature in the garden. I don’t quite know how it will look, and this pipe is the least glamorous photo of all:

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But again, the use of old stonework is really interesting. I like the idea of having damp-loving plants around it too.

That’s it, really. It’s very boring inspiration, as inspiration goes: but hopefully thinking about this sort of thing will make the finished garden feel more like it belongs.

Edit: I missed one!

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I can’t tell whether this terracotta channel from a downpipe, down a steep garden edge to a drain, is really pretty, really ugly, really inventive or a bit of a kludge. But it did seem both remarkable and of a piece with the rest of the street of houses, so it ended up on the camera. I do rather like the way it’s started to merge in with the landscaping, though.

Winter walk through south-east Sheffield’s parks

Yesterday I walked from our nearest Sheffield park (Norfolk Park) to Ecclesall Woods, visiting as many green spaces as I could on the way. From what @helenintgarden told me on Twitter, it turns out I ended up doing a large fraction of the Sheffield round walk (signs for which I did occasionally see.)

Some parts of the walk were more picturesque than others, but throughout it was emblematic of the most pleasant this time of year can provide: the combination of austere sparseness, oases of green shoots and evergreen leafiness; the leaf mould covering the floors of bosky-smelling lums; the bright if brittle winter sun low in the sky throughout.

Here’s a few photos I took as I walked, that I hope are evocative enough.

Norfolk Park, Jervis Lum, Park Grange Road and Black Bank

Norfolk Park has beautiful views over the city, and Park Grange Road beautiful views of the city and the trams. As it’s my local haunt, I can’t think of much more to say than the photographs can:

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Gleadless Valley

Through ivied woods, ascending up towards Backmoor and the school. Like a lot of the green spaces, I get the feeling it used to be an industrial site, and some of the excavations had been the removal of contaminated earth. When it was beautiful, though, it was very much so:

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Graves Park and Chancet Wood

Past the park pavilion and along the top of the ravine between park and Chesterfield Road, then descending a little to Meadowhead and past Chancet Wood:

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Beauchief’s woods

After a coffee at Cello’s on Westwick Crescent, following the crescent up to the entrance to Old Park Wood; then down through the Beauchief and Abbey golf courses, past Gulleys Wood and Ladies Spring Wood:

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Beauchief Abbey

This abbey, ruined by the Dissolution, had been built during Archbishop Thomas (a) Becket’s lifetime, and dedicated to him after his murder. It still held services, and also held some of its old beauty in imagined walls and empty once-rooms:

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Ecclesall Woods and home along the Sheaf

Along Abbey Lane, then round the back of the estate into Ecclesall Wood, for a tour around the bird sanctuary and a quick visit to the gravestone of woodcollier George Yardley before heading back home along the Sheaf View walk:

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And that’s all I have: unfortunately, the rat I saw by Tesco on the way home didn’t pause long enough for a photograph.

End of year review: out of the frost came forth sweetness

Apart from a few tweets I’ve barely posted anything during December. I’ve needed some time this month to rest, and to wrap up a few work-related things, and also to try to enjoy the Christmas season. This time last year we’d only just moved, and despite being one of the most Christmassy people I know, I’d missed out on the celebrations, and felt it.

This winter, however, I have a hankering to review the garden during this, the turn of the year. Since Christmas, hard frosts have fallen on Sheffield:

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Frosts thick as light snowfall; frosts with imprints in them; frosts not melting all day if the weak, low, daytime sun cannot reach them.

Layout and landscaping

To get some idea of which parts of the back garden are worst hit, I’ve taken another in my occasional series of almost indecipherable photos out of the back window:

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Reflections of the curtains aside, you can probably see that the compost corner is frosted, despite being quite a slope. I would expect frosts to form where cold air could sit, but—possibly because the house leaks heat—the lowest point of the patio is entirely unfrosted, despite being walled on three sides. The backdoor decking is also unfrosted, unlike its raised equivalent:

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Only a little later in the day, some of the garden does get sunshine:

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Making it difficult to work out precisely why the back left corner is unfrosted: is that just this morning’s sun at work? Or does that southwest-facing corner keep heat from night to night:

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Here, where the compost bins used to be, is the site for one of the new walls, which I will need to start digging in late winter so I can plant out in mid-spring. All is still in flux, and all provisional; but it’s interesting and somewhat heartening to see the future site of raised beds and greenhouse both, entirely free of frost by mid-morning.

Trees and woody shrubs

Woody structures remain, where I’ve not cut them down yet. There’s the euonymous I’d hacked back, much more visible since the privet has been removed:

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I’d thought to hang the bird feeder there, where birds could eat without being seen by the several local cats including our own. But it seems the birds can’t see the nuts either, so I’m about to move it to the acer at the other end (invisible in the photo above, with the glare of the rare sunlight on the back fence.)

Closer up, it’s clear that the acer, so lovely this past year is clearly coming into bud:

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I’m in two minds as to whether to hack it back or not. It’s been a lovely tree, but one day I will have to either move it or remove it; as I’ve been told that acers can survive coppicing, maybe I should do that sooner rather than later.

I’ve hacked back the buddleia in two stages, the same as last year:

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It’s likely to come back just fine, as it usually survives ill treatment far better than the ill-fated cuttings I took from it. Another candidate to move at some point this next year, but I imagine it will fare much better than the acer.

Flowering, or not

Despite our continuation of the previous owners’ neglect of it, the winter-flowering jasmine is still trying its darnedest to put on a few flowers:

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This makes me more determined to move it somewhere more amenable to its health, next season. In comparison, my row of hardy perennial pots (most from this year’s RHS Malvern is largely dormant:

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The foliage on Tiarella “Sugar and Spice” and Stipa tenuissima is still hanging in there, but other than that there’s little sign of life.

The autumn-planted pea “Latvian” is surviving remarkably well:

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This is despite the row of pots being blown over a few times, most recently by Storm Barbara.

The clearing of the privet and most of the brambles behind the shed has revealed this mystery little plant:

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And, despite the weather, and the season, and the darkness, the zonal pelargoniums are still completely earning their keep:

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I know some people find them a bit brash—is there a DIY shop that doesn’t stock them every spring?—but they flower some nine months of the year and are very undemanding plants. If we need space-fillers while some of the landscaping work goes on, I’ll definitely pick at least a few of these.

New shoots

Bulbs are shooting all over the place. There are crocus and something else peeping out from under viola in planters around the front:

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Different planters have different mixes in them, based on the bulb selection I used last year, but I don’t think I’ve mixed crocus with iris, so I think that stray shoot must be something else.

In other planters, there’s evidence that something eating the shoots:

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Which I hope the frost will deter. More crocuses are evident around the Welsh rose’s present from Gwenfar, Lavender “Fathead”:

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And in the re-sited growframe, on the upper decking to keep it out of the way of landscaping, weighted and tied down to prevent the storms from knocking it over, are some speciality bulbs:

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From left to right: Galanthus “Ophelia”, Iris “Purple gem”, some kind of Scilla, and Iris “Katharine Hodgkin”.

Fingers crossed they escape being nibbled, like they were last year; fingers crossed, indeed, that we all—the bulbs, the acer, the landscaping and me—have a more exciting but less nibbled new year.

Compost bin moved out of the way of the new retaining wall

After finishing levelling the terracing at the top-right corner, I needed a way of lifting a few hundred litres of compost up about a metre or so, into the new bin.

It turns out (from Twitter feedback) that the first scaffolding company I rang was offering me a great deal on 4-metre boards, so I got eight delivered:

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I was hoping that, with the help of these, I’d be able to clear out the existing brick bins:

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So I put a couple of the boards up the slope, leading up to the new bin, with only support at either end:

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Unfortunately they were springier than I’d expected. I didn’t really trust my weight, plus a barrowload, on the boards at the same time. Also, on the day I picked, the frost had left the ground a weird mix of slippery mud on top of ice-crystal slush, meaning that even with the boards things weren’t as stable as I’d hoped. But the long one across the top was useful for getting a bit of extra height with the later barrowloads.

Anyway, I still got to work, and while it took a good two hours, and maybe twenty barrowloads, it’s now all in the new bin:

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The new bin is pretty good, although the compost is already so broken down that it’s really finding its own heap slope, spilling out of the front and sides a bit. I might put something against the front in the future, we’ll see.

Nonetheless, this job now leaves the old bins empty and ready to be dismantled:

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I’m hoping there won’t be too much mortaring to crack, but the bricks do go down further than I was expecting. But that’s another day’s job to do it, once my back’s recovered.

Topping spring bulbs with violas

A couple of weeks ago I re-planted last year’s spring bulbs in tubs, around the front of the house to keep out of the way of all the landscaping going on. Although I had dutifully split up the spring bulbs back into genera and species, and then diligently labelled each container as they went back in, I think I’m going to have trouble sorting them back into their relevant brownpaper bags at the end of the season:

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Maybe permanent marker would’ve worked best on actual lollipop sticks, which seem to really soak up soil-y water.

Las year, my bulbs were often unearthed: it could be by a fox or it could be by other local cats (or it could even be by our own little bloody darling). So this year I’d covered the tops of the containers with sticks, but a tip from Gwenfar was to overplant bulbs with violas, as it tends to be “empty” earth that gets dug up.

With that in mind, I’ve added two colours of Viola to the containers:

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Occasional apple sticker aside, I think they look pretty neat. “Yellow Blotch” and “Raspberry”: something like £2.50 for a block of 12 from Homebase. A shame they had to come in unrecyclable polystyrene, but I think that’s the industry being set in its ways. Once they’ve rooted and look healthier, I might live a little, and remove the sticks.