I am not good at letting myself rest. I never learned the value of stopping, letting down, cutting loose, recovery. Allowing myself to not fill my hours with projects, chores, and self-improvement is something I have been trying to teach myself over the last decade, but it is hard to change ingrained learning and temperament.

I have been fortunate to have partners who recognize the value of rest, and who have encouraged me—usually on the point of burnout—to slow down and just. do. nothing. It is still hard for me, but I try to learn from them.

I am grateful to have had 11 blessed days off work during these darkest weeks of winter, and for these 11 days I’ve not been doing much other than giving myself permission to truly, deeply rest, to recuperate from the challenges of the past year and gather my strength for the next. My husband and I had a quiet holiday—just the two of us—where we ate delicious food and exchanged beautiful gifts. There has been a lot of cuddling, and just being close and loving, filling up the reservoir. The furthest we’ve ventured is to walk the fields around our house, mud-slipping through cornfields and scaring up pheasants. These dark days of winter have an underwater feel. Everything is damp and never fully bright. We creep through the mists, holding hands, recovering.

Early purple, spotted

I was walking near my house tonight when I spotted my first native British orchid of the season: an early purple (Orchis mascula). It was growing in a small patch of woodland between two farm fields, right beside a public right of way. This orchid was a welcome distraction from faceplanting in a sodden field not two minutes before, my boots stuck six inches in mud and impossible to extract without sacrificing my dignity and clean clothing.  

Further up the path I spotted another of springtime's pleasures: lambs. There's nothing quite like standing in a (still muddy) field for the better part of an hour watching these little creatures kick their heels up and jump about, playing on hillocks and downed trees. From where I live the sound of ewes calling to their lambs is a constant background noise that punctuates the spring songbird chorus. 

All may look well, but this harsh and prolonged winter has really taken its toll and these lambs are lucky to still be frolicking. A local nursery man speaking at the Great Dixter spring plant fair last weekend said the weather we've just come through was a once-in-a-lifetime event for this area of England, and some experts I follow say the season is running up to four weeks behind usual. I am facing a lot of plant damage in the garden where I work, and it will require patience in order to assess its extent in the next few weeks and then possible removal and replacement of large, established plants. 

Damage to ornamental gardens is one thing, but more importantly the British food supply and the livelihoods of farmers will take a big hit. This article explains more of what we should expect in the months to come. For now, though, its definitely a watch and wait situation as spring tries its best to shake off winter. Thank goodness there are orchids and lambs to distract us in the meantime. 

Late Winter at Great Dixter

Last weekend a good friend and RBGE classmate paid a flying visit before embarking on the prestigious Triad Fellowship, a year-long journey that will take him to Longwood Gardens in the U.S., Hidcote, and Japan. We took him around Sissinghurst then drove down to see what was happening at Great Dixter. Though Dixter isn't technically open to the public in winter, we walked in and found a garden with so much to offer despite the earliness of the season. 

The usual winter-interest suspects were all present. The hellebores, snowdrops, and first narcissus were flowering, red Cornus stems glowed, and the crocus backlit in the low sun looked like handfuls of cut-glass gems had been tossed across the lawns. But what was different from many winter gardens I've seen is how these predictable plants were combined with more exotic and unusual plants that shook up the expected paradigm with great effect. The Great Dixter gardeners have added Euphorbias, Astelia chathamica and bamboo along with conifers of all shapes and sizes to the winter mix, above.  

Cotoneaster, above right, has a reputation as  car park plant, but I like it for many reasons. In winter it has a delicate structure that reminds me of fishbones, followed in spring by small white flowers reminiscent of Crataegus (hawthorn). It's unsurprising as the plants are closely related, both members of Malinae, the apple subtribe of the Rosaceae family. Cotoneaster grows little glossy leaves in the high season and its bright red berries heading into winter complete its four-season interest. 

Whether it's Erigeron karvinskianus spilling from the characteristically-Lutyens circular steps or these self-seeded hellebores above, gardeners at Dixter don't shy from encouraging plants out of their bed into paths. It's a lovely effect, but hard to achieve in many public gardens because of the amount of foot traffic. Yet instead of bowing to the masses, Great Dixter instead asks a lot of its visitor: To walk through this garden you have to pay attention. Branches overhang paths, possibly poking eyes, herbaceous plantings grow head-high, limiting movement, and perfect vignettes grow right underfoot. Woe be it to the careless wander who'd trample a hellebore.

With each visit I make to Dixter I understand the Exotic Garden, above, a little more. This time it was looking hard-hit by our recent spell of record-cold weather. The Exotic Garden has always pushed the limits of hardiness in order to grow more tropical and subtropical plants, so it will no doubt be informative to see what recovers and what's lost. What I liked about this winter view was how it felt like I was on a stage set. The giant plants wrapped in straw and bamboo felt like set dressing, like at any moment they could burst open and undergo a total transformation, which they'll no doubt do with warmer weather. It was a novel feeling for a garden visit, and one I enjoyed even as others might just see the death and dishevelment of a harsh winter. 

I don't love crocus, disliking their weak necks and tendency to flop face-first into the inevitable winter mud. But I didn't mid these great swathes covering the meadow at Dixter, and I think it's come down to two reasons. First, I saw them backlit in the sun, and they made the entire field sparkle. Second, there's not a yellow crocus among them. I don't like a lot of yellow flowers, and I especially hate yellow and dark purple together. So the usual white-purple-yellow triad of crocus has always left me cold. Take away the yellow, though, and I've had to re-evaluate my anti-crocus stance. 

Our eyes were all caught by the distinctive form of the grass, at right, in front of the peacock topiary. We spent a good deal of time trying to figure out if this groomed configuration was the product of perfect combing at the hands of a loving gardener or if it was natural growth. Or maybe it was the wind? These are the kinds of chats you have when a bunch of garden geeks get together. We were in heaven, but you've been warned. 

Great Dixter is known for its exuberant, incredibly full planting style. In the high season its often difficult to walk around the garden because the plants are so lush and thick. This could make it difficult for gardeners to tend the carefully curated (yet artless-appearing) displays. One system that helps is to use bamboo canes, above to demarcate the locations of plants on the ground. These canes provide a road map, a hidden guide that allows gardeners to swap plants in and out of complicated combinations. It's a useful trick I may use someday. 

The portico of Christopher Lloyd's house is always one of my favorite spots in the garden. It always has a novel and usually thought-provoking display. I've heard the current head gardener, Fergus Garrett, has a thing for exotic conifers and is incorporating them throughout the garden. I love that this display is a collector's passion project that showcases the amazing diversity, and beauty, of conifers. 

And finally we ended up in the nursery, a pristine space packed with unusual plants. It always makes me happy to visit the Dixter nursery, which is orderly yet feels academic in the amount of information provided about the plants on offer. We spent quite a while here, oohing and ahhing over this and that before retiring to the pub to chat plants and gardens over beers. Just like old times, and a lovely day. Yet again, Great Dixter proved inspirational and exciting, even in late winter. 

Pruning in the walled garden, February

The wind is blowing at 20 mph, making it feel like -5°C (23°F). I'm at the top of a 12-foot ladder as first rain, then snow, then sleet blows around me, rocking the slender aluminum support that's the only thing holding me in the the air. My steel-toed wellies slide on the metal rungs, my five layers of clothing making me as graceful as a rubber-suited snowman. I clutch at wisteria, at icy wires fixed into old mortar by improbably slim metal vine eyes. My wet pruners slip from my hand and fall, the open blade thwacking two inches deep into the mud below. All I hear is wind. 

Down on the ground to retrieve my pruners I give up on ladder work and turn toward a climbing rose that needs pruning. I untie it and carefully tease the long canes out from where they'd been stuffed behind wires. My mouth is full of muddy lengths of flexi-tie. It's the easiest place to store them when it's too wet and cold to root around in pockets.

My gloves are soaked through and anyway it's impossible to bend and tie stiff rose canes wearing them. I take off my gloves and throw them to the ground. In just a few moments my exposed hands become so cold they burn with pain and I'm having trouble feeling what I'm doing. A rose cane under pressure springs out of my wet grip and lands a thorn into the back of my finger, right into a vein. I'm too cold to feel it but a bright stream of blood spouts in an instant. It flows down my finger, down my hand, then down my wrist. I stare at the blood, fascinated that one thorn could unleash such a torrent. My hands are so cold. I want to put my gloves back on because even wet at least they'll block the wind. But do I really want to wear a glove full of blood for the three and a half days left in this week?

It's too cold to think straight. I smear the blood across my dirty waterproofs. Later I'll wipe mud from around my mouth. Even later that night my husband will take my hand and notice the purple discoloration of internal bleeding puddled under my skin the entire length of the thorn-stabbed knuckle. When I examine it I'll find next to the bruise another rose thorn buried a quarter inch deep in my skin. We've been pruning roses since October; by now I know the drill. I'll sterilize a sewing needle, rootle around in my flesh, and the blood will run down my hand again.   

Snowdrops and stories: A winter visit to Dawyck Botanic Garden

Yesterday dawned reasonably mild and almost sunny, so the decision was made to drive down to Dawyck Botanic Garden, a Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh property in the Scottish Borders known for its snowdrop display. The clouds had once again closed thickly overhead by the time we arrived, and it was spitting rain, but we had a warm welcome from the reception staff and were encouraged to join one of the volunteer-led tours as something of a insider quality assurance scheme. 

The tour guide went over much of what was covered during a class trip last year, but for someone with no experience of the garden it would definitely be educational. So often it's easy to look at gardens superficially as just a collection of plants and trees in an aesthetically appealing arrangement. However, gardens are always full of stories, whether they are as globally influenced and influencing as a botanic garden or the personal histories of a private home patch. Because plants can't speak, and designed interpretation can only explain so much, garden tours are the only way to learn these stories that bring gardens even more to life. 

From the Dawyck tour guide I learned of the rumors that C. Linnaeus, father of the binomial naming system used today, may have planted the European larch (Larix decidua) near the Dynamo Pond. The story is contested, as Linnaeus is thought to have not traveled further north than Oxford. However, examination of mycorrhizal fungi from the roots of the tree found it to be unique within Britain and originating in Linnaeus' home country of Sweden. That's a botanical mystery--just one of thousands that make horticulture so endlessly fascinating. 

The American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) has been removed from the banks of the creek winding through the garden. Last year we learned that the garden staff were carefully monitoring this planting, which was dispersing its seed into the watercourse and becoming invasive downstream. In the ensuing year this plant's status as an invasive non-native of serious concern meant it had to go. Our tour guide expressed remorse at losing part of the collection, but I applaud Dawyck for modeling environmentally responsible behavior, which I believe is one of the major obligations of botanic gardens today. Throughout history, plant collectors and horticulturists have sometimes done more damage than good, and with our increased knowledge and sensitivity to the effects of our actions on the living world, now is the time to reverse that trend and begin protecting our environments through more considered husbandry.

I also learned a few new words, including "indumentum," a kind of catch-all term to describe plant surface coverings of any kind, such as hairs or scales. This bit of botanical vocabulary was passed on whilst examining a fuzzy Rhododendron leaf. In addition to its snowdrops, Dawyck is known for its collection of Rhododendron species, the earliest of which were just on the brink of bloom. 

But back to the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalus), the real reason for the trip. This was my first visit to a "snowdrop wood," and it did not disappoint. Snowdrops grew throughout the entire garden, but were mostly concentrated along the burn, where they grew so thickly as to actually look, at a distance, like a blanket of snow. 

Snowdrops are sweet and pretty, and if I ever garden a woodland I'll definitely turn a bunch loose to spread at will. I understand their importance as one of the first flowers of the year, bringing hope for the spring just to come. But I'll never be a galanthophile, which is just as well given the seemingly ridiculous prices paid by some collectors for specimens, such as the rare yellow-bloomed varieties. At right, Galanthus nivalis 'Sandersii' Lowick blooming last week in the alpine backup area of RBGE. 

Paying up to $2,500 a bulb for a tiny plant that pushes out a chlorotic-looking bloom just seems silly to me, but people get very passionate about their snowdrops, fueling what could be the tulip bubble of the 21st century. 

The mass effect of a snowdrop wood is impressive, and I imagine it would be even more so with a little bit of sun. But until I garden on such a scale I'll enjoy my snowdrops close-up, in simple clay pots, where I can appreciate their perfectly delicate form. And I'll get my Galanthus fix from places like Dawyck, where snowdrops and stories abound. 

Winter at the Botanics

After that second cup of tea I put on my wool long underwear and shearling hat and walked through the chilly streets of Edinburgh and down the Leith River to the Botanics. Because of its lower elevation and closer proximity to the sea, there wasn't as much frost in the garden as at home. Nevertheless, I walked around looking for photos, my only company the wood pigeons and a handful of visitors who had braved the cold.

It was nice to spend time in the garden in a visually creative way. I am there every week--sometimes multiple days per week--but for more than two years the focus of that time has been horticultural and taxonomic training, not art. Photographing in the frosty garden yesterday reminded me of one of the main reasons I want to work with plants--they are just so beautiful

Even on a day when weather conditions and the half-light of Scottish winter kept most people inside, fallen leaves and frozen foliage held my attention for several hours. I walked home in the four o'clock dark as snow squalls advanced from the east, grateful I'd seen the garden this day.

I keep thinking about an amazing BBC documentary I watched last week, called Forest, Field & Sky: Art Out of Nature, about artists who use nature as their medium. It featured David Nash, Charles Jencks, Julie Brook, my favorite Andy Goldsworthy, among others, and lots of artworks created in Scotland. It was one of the best and most inspiring films I've seen, so check it out if you can (it's also on YouTube though the quality doesn't do justice to the art). I revisited one of the Goldsworthy pieces at the Botanics yesterday, enjoying the surrounding warm-colored leafy gradient combined with the cool slate, and how the fallen leaves added an extra element--a stripe of orange--of which Goldsworthy would no doubt approve. 

Slate, Hole, Wall by Andy Goldsworthy (1990)

A bright spot in the winter garden

I picked up a few Primulas at a big-box garden center in February, desperate for some color to fend off the late winter (nay, almost constant) Edinburgh grey. Many people, especially in the horticultural circles in which I now run, disparage these commonly available modern Primula cultivars as vulgar and common, but I love them because in the U.K. there are so many more colors and forms available than in the U.S. This makes them novel and exciting to me. And, at a few quid, they've been pumping out color in my window box for months. That's a darn good value for the brightest spot in my Scottish winter garden.