Sweet Winter

(An ‘Operation: Garden Wild’ update!)

Recently, it has been rare to have a full weekend without rain, so I have been making the most of it out in the garden. The result is that the first of the raised beds I introduced on my previous blog (Operation: Wild Garden) is already fully planted up!

I started early Friday morning with the lining* and filling of the bed. I will talk more about this process in a later blog, with some step-by-step photos and some detail about compost choice, when I move on to do this same task with the other two beds.

            *I mentioned in my introduction to this project that I was considering whether or not to paint/treat the timber. I had some concerns about this as many paints and wood treatments are toxic to wildlife. In the end, these worries, and also budget restrictions made the decision for me, along with the consensus of opinion in comments on the blog about preferring the natural look of the timber – I quite agree! No painting to be done. I have however lined the beds, to help reduce direct contact of soil to timber in order to prolong the life of the structure.

In this blog however, I want to take a closer look at the planting in this first of three beds. I am calling this bed ‘The Winter Garden’ as it has been planted with a particular emphasis on winter and spring.

Firstly it is important to remember, that across all three beds, space is at a premium. In this limited growing room, planning is key, and all the plants used are going to have to work extra hard to justify their inclusion. I could plant things that are excellent for wildlife, but if they don’t bring me joy to look at, they don’t belong in my garden. Equally, just because I like the appearance of a plant, doesn’t mean it will automatically make the grade. There has to be other bonus points, whether it’s an extended flowering season, blooms beloved by bees, or seed-heads that will feed the birds over winter.

So what have I included? Here is the full list!

Evergreens, colour, and contrast

+ Blueberry ‘Sunshine Blue’  – a uniquely evergreen blueberry. Year round foliage, spring blooms for pollinating insects, and tasty berries for us and the wildlife!

+ Tree heath ‘Arthurs Gold’ – bright yellow colour contrasts with other foliage, and the soft needle-like growth provides protected spaces to invertebrates such as ladybirds to shelter.

+ Heuchera – dark purple leaves contrast with other foliage particularly the golden heath, and provide year round shelter for invertebrates and forging opportunities for small birds looking for woodlice, slugs etc. under the large leaves.

+ Sarcococca ‘Purple Stem’ – height and structure in the bed, with sweetly scented flowers in late winter and early spring, visited by early emerging bees.

+ Purple leaved sage – another contrast of foliage texture and colour. Scented leaves add extra interest and sensory stimulation, and if allowed the flower the blooms attract insects. This is a plant that will be repeated in the other beds to create continuity through the design.

Bulbs

+ Mixed spring bulbs including snowdrops, crocus, daffodil ‘Minnow’, anenome/wind flower, and chionodoxa ‘glory of the snow’.
These will provide a long period of flower, from January/February, starting with the snowdrop through till April when the daffodils will finish. Minnow is a multi-headed variety, increasing the number of flowers per bulb, and also fragrant to draw in the foraging insects. All are dwarf bulbs, with a maximum height of 20cm which will help them withstand the changeable weather of early spring, so they can continue to offer nectar and pollen over the whole flowering time.

+ Allium ‘Eros’ – this pink allium will flower in June, extending the season after the spring bulbs have finished. Bees love allium flowers, and this variety produces several stems per bulb for maximum value.

Other plants

+ Rose ‘Munsted Wood’ – reddish stems and rich burgundy flowers in summer will contrast with the other planting in the bed, and tie this bed in with the other two which will also include roses. Rose leaves are a favourite with leaf cutter bees, a type of solitary bee, which uses semi-circles of leaves that they cut with their jaws, to line and seal their nest chambers.

+ Hellebore ‘Christmas Carol’ – this plant flowers in the winter and early spring, and its open, cup shaped, white blooms are rich in nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects, when they first emerge early in the year.

+ Aubretia and Arabis – both of these are spring flowering, with magenta blooms. Aubretia will trail over the side of the bed whilst arabis is more upright, but both offer an excellent source of nectar to insects such as bees and bee flies, as well as being attractive to the early butterflies.

+ Primula – these cultivars of the cowslip are another great spring nectar source for long tongued pollinators.

+ Cyclamen and violet – these woodland edge plants have pretty pink or purple blooms, the cyclamen in autumn and winter, the violet in spring. Both have a creeping low growing habit, and should spread between the other plants, acting as ground cover; sheltering invertebrates beneath them and protecting the soil from totally drying out.

Finishing touches

+ The whole bed is mulched with fine pine bark. This is not only for appearance sake. Mulches are important for soil health, protecting the layer below from the scorching heat of summer, and helping to conserve moisture from rainfall. It will also provide the perfect habitat for soil and litter invertebrates such as woodlice and worms, and therefor harbour food for birds throughout the year. Some of the plants in this bed, the blueberry and the tree heath for example, are acid loving, and as such are planted in ericaceous (acidic, lime free) compost, and as this pine bark rots down it will help maintain the soil conditions these plants like.

So, there it is folks! Rather a long list for such a small space, so I hope you are still with me! Even I didn’t realise just how much I had squeezed in until I started writing it all down.  From winter foliage for shelter, to beautiful blooms for bees with the spring bulbs and hellebores, and extended interest into the rest of the year with the alliums and rose… this small bed really does pack a punch when it comes to wildlife value. Plus there will be plenty to entertain the eye, and hopefully the nose, when I wander out on spring mornings with a cup of tea! I’m delighted with how this project is going and cant wait to share updates with you as the bulbs emerge and the wildlife is drawn in.

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