Snow Patrol in Ashenville

The first of December sees us snowbound and temperatures plummeting to minus 18°C during the night. This, our second winter at Bridge Eal, is even harsher than the first – the snow is up to my knees, with blizzards adding layer upon layer. The empty valley is stunningly lovely, and it is so cold that there aren’t any rabbit tracks. Even so, David shovels the snow from the outside of the drystone walls so it doesn’t build up and create an easy way in. it is tough walking in the deep snow, but it is much easier for David, who gets about on skis. The main river is frozen over in places with dark water running under the ice, though the dipper still slips into the flow, then pops up to preen and shake its tail. It feeds on caddis fly larvae, so hopefully it has plenty of food. With such a weight of snow, it’s vital that I brush it from the topiary and from the box hedge. This hedge has suffered enough already  with being dug up and moved here, then subjected to deep frosts last winter. it struggled to pull through in the drought of early summer, and before this month was looking very sad in places. I have more box plants in four-litre pots as replacements for some areas. These have been grown from cuttings from the same source material – so the hedge itself will be identical -and I will plant them in spring. This morning I wake to see the garden is no longer white or even patchy but bare earth thanks to a sudden thaw. I wander around, well wrapped up, to assess the damage: crushed sedums, broken branches on all the new roses and leeks that look like a lawnmower has been over them. This amazing amount of damage is down to the voles that live in the drystone walls. I can see where they have left squiggly tracks as they channelled under the snow, safe from the owls. They have even obliterated a clematis that I had caged in fine mesh, by burrowing up from underneath.

Snow Patrol - Ashenville

The garden looks such a mess of soggy foliage that when the snow comes again it is a relief to look out on its concealing purity. Not as deep this time, it gently transforms steps, paths and outlines so the perennials look like charcoal marks on white paper. It is bitterly cold, more damaging to plants than when they were insulated by 18in of snow; the day before the solstice, the temperature plummets to a numbing minus 10°C in the afternoon.

I take a bucket to the wood and gather soft moss from fallen trees, peeling it off in thick wedges; collect lichen-covered twigs from the path; and cut fern fronds. I cut branches of berried holly and spruce for the greenery and add these to a stash of found materials to create a Christmas wreath. It’s easy to make, but I have to work fast because of the cold.

Taking a double base ring, I hold the moss between the brass hoops and fix it on using florists’ wire. I use the ferns (fronds of the male fern are still green in the wood) together with the spruce to give a dense background to the wreath. The luscious, scarlet holly berries sing out against the greenery. The larch cones are wired in too – I love their nutty brown colour and shape – and the grey, lichen-covered twigs add lightness at points on the circle. Finally, I tie a red ribbon bow at the top. Against the dark green of the front door, it looks very welcoming and festive.

For Christmas, I’m given a present that turns out to be quite addictive! It’s a weather station with a sensor that we fix to the back of the summerhouse. This sends a signal to a receiver inside, so we can tell what the temperature is without venturing out. We have a three-year weather log, so can compare it with last winter, but now we can do it from the warmth of the kitchen. It’s so helpful to know when to rush out and fleece plants, so we intend to put another sensor in our greenhouse.

Glorious Gardens – Cheshire

The approach to Arley Hall takes you down a straight single track road that cuts through acres of open countryside. You expect to be greeted by an austere entrance, but, pleasantly, it is quite the contrary. Although undeniably a grand Victorian dwelling, Arley offers a warm welcome. It has been a family home since the 15th century, and each generation has added something to the garden. The current Lord and Lady Ashbrook are often seen arriving home with car boots full of plants, and visitors regularly have the pleasure of talking to them as they attend to their garden. Head gardener Gordon Baillie explains that they are very knowledgeable gardeners, and in the future he is sure that Lord Ashbrook will be praised for his influence on this 18-acre garden. ‘His passion is for trees and shrubs, and he has a vast collection of rhododendrons in the woodland known as the Grove,’ says Gordon. The welcoming arms that Arley proffer are nothing new.

Glorious Gardens - AshenvileNative

In the 1960s, Lord Ashbrook’s mother was one of the first to open her gates to the public. She relished the idea of sharing the family garden, and this in turn encouraged her to develop it further. The garden is most famous for its herbaceous borders. It is believed that they were the first example of borders of this kind in the country, and they are estimated to be 250 years old. On one side is a vast yew hedge with buttresses sculpted out of the giant evergreen. This is the shadiest side and therefore home to moisture-loving plants. The borders are 4m deep, offering room for layer upon layer of dramatic herbaceous planting. To the other more sunny side, the border is backed by a brick wall, but still features freestanding yew buttresses. ‘Due to the different aspects of each side, they’re not identical borders, and between them they feature more than 200 different perennials,’ explains Gordon. ‘We constantly change the planting and there are no rules as to what can or can’t be used. There is no colour theming to restrict plant choice, which makes it an exciting and ever-changing display.

These borders are kept free of bulbs and shrubs, apart from the May-flowering Aihum hollandicurn ‘Purple Sensation’ and a few clipped specimens of Berberis thunbergii. Once the gardens close in autumn, the faded flowers are cut back to about Sin from the ground. Gordon explains that by leaving a few inches of stem, he can identify the plants that may be ready for autumn division. ‘Leaving the stems and seedheads to be decorated by frost is tempting, but with such a large area to maintain and only five staff, it is the more practical option to clear it in autumn,’ says Gordon. One of the most time-consuming tasks is to keep up with the bindweed, and, in spring and summer, adding the supports that the lofty perennials require. The soil is slightly acidic, and after centuries of organic matter being added to the borders, the plants exceed the heights expected in most gardens. Although plant lists from the past exist, the team and family are not scared to add plants. Monardas were used last year, with great success. ‘Lady Ashbrook will look at sections of the border, and make sure that each group of plants associates well together. It remains a work in progress and not a static piece of art,’ explains Gordon. ‘The yew hedges need to be kept in check and we cut these twice a year, once in May and then again just before the gardens close in October,’ he says. ‘We are looking to reduce the width of the yew hedge by half, which might sound very dramatic, but at some point it needs to be done. Thankfully, yew tends to respond well to fairly drastic pruning.’ At the far end of the borders, there is an alcove that is licensed for civil ceremonies. The setting is quite incredible, and as you look out from The Alcove along the borders to the countryside, you experience the full impact of these incredible features. The ha-ha allows the view to roll out undisturbed, and apart from the sheer scale of the ancient yews, it looks just as it would have more than 250 years ago.