Rory Dusoir: January at Great Dixter

Many consider January the worst of months; it is often the coldest of the year and it coincides with a post-festive slump in spirit. Anticipation of February does little to improve anyone’s mood, in general; for it seems an even more superfluous and tiresome prolongation of the winter, which in turn is only slightly alleviated by the uncertain promise of March. In the garden, it is certainly the most colourless time, rock bottom in its tally of flowers – and even berries will have mostly vanished by the turn of the year.

People are curious to know what possible use could be made of a team of gardeners under such desolate conditions; and behind their enquiry often lurks the suspicion that some sort of secret truce of idleness is observed by our profession until the weather perks up and there is something to do. However, if this exists, it was never allowed to take root at Dixter; there was far too much on. It was generally our experience that to face the worst of conditions with a stout heart was to diminish them, whilst skulking around indoors tended to exaggerate them. And it was not all bad.

First, the weather. Cold weather in January was always welcomed with open arms. Cold generally meant clear skies and sunshine that although feeble, was probably felt and appreciated more than at any other time of year. A hard frost actually promoted greater traction on Dixter’s greasy clay. After a spell of slopping about in the wet it was always a relief to be stepping onto something solid instead of sinking or slipping. Although it precluded cultivation of the soil, frost allowed us to trample on it without fear of compaction – so it offered opportunities for pruning back-of-border shrubs and for hauling materials across ground liable to cut up. The jobs were generally hearty in nature, and before long layers of clothing would be tossed aside.

Bringing in the wood for Christo’s fires was certainly a warming job. There was an insidious culture of competition that governed the loading of the wheelbarrows. We used to cantilever about a quarter of the load over the front of the barrow on some long, projecting logs. This was necessary not only in order to accommodate what was considered a respectable volume of wood on the barrow, but by adjusting the balance it also allowed the operator to lift the handles at the other end, otherwise impossible under such a weight. The wheelbarrow’s groans, as you reached the porch, would echo the inward complaints of your back.

From there, the wood had to be carried in great, heavy, also competitive, armfuls. First, you had to stock the fireplace in the Solar with the correct proportion of thin and fat logs. Any clumsiness in their placement would immediately be sensed below in the Parlour, for the dogs would hear it and kick up a fuss. Christo would excoriate you for disturbing his ‘girls’ and for putting the tiles in the fireplace at risk. You would then carry the logs into the Parlour itself, where the fire was already blazing and Christo sat about three feet in front of it with a blanket on his lap, writing. He would be flanked by Canna and Dahlia who would immediately start barking if you hadn’t already disturbed them. The delicate performance of placing the logs gently and correctly had to be repeated in a temperature of about 50 degrees in the small space available between the fire and its master, under the close scrutiny of three pairs of eyes.

Lighting the Solar fire in the evening was more relaxed, though not entirely so, as you were expected to do it with a maximum of one match, preferably fewer. Christo’s notions of thrift did not allow for the cost of labour. So you had to find an ember buried in the ash that still might have some glow, and nurture this with the bellows until the blaze was established. If you passed Christo on your way downstairs, he would always ask how many matches you had used. And you wouldn’t put it past him to have counted them.

Outside, winter sun, reflected from all the frosted surfaces and casting long shadows, would display the permanent fabric of the garden at its best. In the summer, Dixter is such a hectically planted garden that it is easy to forget what solid bones it has. But at this time, if at no other, the architectural elements of the garden held sway. Chiefly the yew hedges and topiary specimens – but there were a number of evergreen trees that Christo had planted which come into their own in the cold weather. Not only for want of anything more colourful, but also because the cold would enhance and transmute their effect. One such was Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Ericoides’, paired in the High Garden with Helichrysum splendidum. Perhaps the most heart-warming sight on a cold day was the Daphniphyllum macropodum on the terrace. The leaves would droop engagingly, showing off the red petioles which seemed to have deepened by a couple of shades. The effect was greatly enhanced by contrast in colour and habit with the neighbouring Trochodendron aralioides, a wonderful combination. Christo had a subtler eye than many people gave him credit for.

Low pressure brought damp weather, but also mild air upon which you could sniff the spring. The gradual elongation of the snowdrops substantiated this notion, as did the sudden appearance of the earliest bulbous irises and the brave sporadic flowering of Iris unguicularis. To grow well in borders, snowdrops need to be located in areas that aren’t too frequently disturbed. In the root zone of deciduous shrubs for instance. If you look around your garden at snowdrop time, you will probably be surprised how many little gaps you can find. Christo and Fergus were on the hunt every year, and they would still find new places. When they planted them with herbaceous perennials, it was amongst plants that only had to be divided infrequently, ultimately achieving wide swathes of  snowdrops as an early bonus in the same space. Such areas would be tidied and blanketed with compost earlier than any others in the garden, by early December, for the little white noses would generally begin emerging around the turn of the year.

At the first whiff of this sort of weather, we would commence the ‘spring tidy’  and overhaul of the beds, in the High Garden. As Christo preferred to leave the bulk of the herbaceous material alone through the autumn, there was always a great deal to get done after the turn of the year and mild spells were gratefully seized upon. In sodden weather, we would collect our waterproofs from the boiler room, and work off boards to protect the ground –  if you could keep your feet dry and warm, nothing seemed too bad. As you cleared away the debris of a previous year’s growth, close to the ground you would find many small signs of the new year’s promise. By the end of the month, the first snowdrops would be in flower, the days appreciably longer; the procession towards spring was underway, whether you were ready for it or not.