“If you can keep your head…”

“If you can keep your head…”

The above line at the beginning of one of Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poems starts an evocation of manly virtues. Kipling was surprised at the warm reception the poem “If” received. He commented that it seemed to have gone “around the world in a day”.

Another idea which seems to have circumnavigated the world, at least amongst gardeners, is that of leaving herbaceous plants which are able to withstand the winter in situ. At least until they finally collapse after fulfilling the natural cycle of growth, flowering, reproduction and death. There are sound ecological as well as aesthetic reasons for doing this. Seed heads provide much needed forage for birds and stems provide refuge for invertebrates. I love the woolly seed heads on clematis which are so tactile, whilst those on my cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) seem armour plated by comparison.

Fluffy Clematis Seed Heads

Fluffy Clematis Seed Heads

Yet if temperatures do not dip too much then winter can be perhaps one of the greenest of seasons because there can be little to distract the eye. It has often been pointed out though not, I feel, widely accepted, that our climate has more in common with the Mediterranean than with continental climates. Though gardeners are obsessed with hardiness and have tended to choose plants from continental climates because they are able to survive the harsh winters. Mediterranean winters are mild and damp, just like ours even before the recent run of mild winters grabbed media attention. This means that we can have the luxury of green foliage.

Acanthus mollis is one such Mediterranean plant that can be appreciated now for its large shiny leaves that look like a much oversized holly.  Like many Mediterranean plants the Acanthus makes much of its growth in winter whilst temperatures are lower and moisture is more abundant. Acanthus mollis can spread aggressively in good soil so a good way to control it is to cut back the foliage completely in some years.

Another Mediterranean plant giving its best right now is the Corsican hellebore which has tough glossy evergreen leaves topped with open greenish yellow flowers. This hellebore seeds well in well drained soil or into gravel where it is nearby but it is not invasive.

Another winter favourite of mine is the so called ‘stinking hellebore’ or Helleborus foetidus. This plant can be found wild in the British Isles and can give off an unpleasant smell if the foliage is crushed, though why anyone would want to do this is a mystery to me. The foliage is narrow and glossy dark green and the flowers are charming, hanging like green bells which are unscathed by the frost.

Geranium macrorrhizum comes from the Balkans where the snows can be heavy but it does not go completely dormant. It’s lemony scented foliage can still provide a cheerful ground cover carpet as the plant is able to photosynthesise whilst others are dormant.

Perhaps the classic winter evergreen is box (Buxus) which despite box blight is still being planted by gardeners who want a clean topiaried look. The formality of box is perfectly complimented by something looser such as grasses or the seed heads of Lunaria rediviva which look like small stained glass windows, shining silver with the light behind them.

There is plenty to look at as well as eat in the vegetable garden where brassicas are without doubt the stars of the show. Kale can be extremely decorative with curly, crinkled or coloured foliage.  Swiss chard can look a bit ragged but the stems are still attractive and it remains productive for a long time.

The humble leek is perhaps the most reliable of all winter veg and quite attractive in rows where the grey leaves acquire a silver sheen.

A lot of hard work has to be done in the winter vegetable garden, digging over the soil when conditions allow. But it is also a very productive time and can be as productive as any so why not continue to stir-fry, soup, bake and roast your way through your winter veg.

Ross Underwood