Janus, the Roman two headed god, looks forward and back at the turning of the year. We are doing the same. It is still dark and cold but the seed catalogues are arriving and I start with the vegetable seeds. I rely on Paolo Arrigo at Franchi for our main tender crops and use wholesalers for seed we want in quantity. The unusual crops tend to stick in my mind. The purple kohl rabi that makes good coleslaw, the tomato ‘Cuor di bue’ with its massive heart shaped fruits for salads and, for my children, lemon or French sorrel.
Flower seeds, particularly the annuals are a tricky game. Every catalogue promises fantastic flowers from new varieties. The problem is, I can’t resist their sales pitch. The new pictures are exciting and I want them all but I mustn’t forget to order seeds that were new to us five years ago and have become old favourites. This requires a fair amount of self discipline and an inpenetrable spreadsheet to prevent over ordering. On the whole I ignore dwarf varieties but then again they can be excellent for infill bedding. Alyssum is naturally small but punches high above its weight for floriferousness and scent. Rudbeckia ‘dwarf mix’ isn’t really dwarf at all and sometimes I just can’t resist a new cultivar however stunted its breeding. It’s this head messing stuff that drives me outside.
When temperatures reach 6C and the ground thaws then plant growth can start. The longer days have a major impact on emerging snowdrops, aconites, early irises and hellebores. Leaf litter, slowly rotting under the horse chestnut and black walnut is punctuated by pale green shoots (snowdrops) and fat buds (hellebores). Galanthophiles are also stirring. Christopher Lloyd used to call these snowdrop enthusiasts, ‘Galanthobores’ which is very ungallant. (Enough puns). This breed of men and women are making plans to visit the other end of the country from where they live for the chance to see and collect snowdrops slightly different from their own. It sounds daft and it probably is, but it doesn’t stop me from joining them.
In the meantime, the best colour in the gardens comes from the birds perched on the twigs of trees and shrubs. On a dreak January day nothing lifts the heart like the birds. We may still be watching for a break in the weather for signs of spring but they know that now is the time. The pheasant cockbird is a glorious sight in his full winter regalia. He is attended by blue tits (now looking properly blue), long tailed and marsh tits streaming through the trees behind his royal progress. In the Spring, he’ll ruin it all by flapping his wings and calling raucously like mad king George, but for the time being we believe in his dignity. He is matched in colour by glimpses of the kingfisher, and unsually this year, the bullfinch.