I have always enjoyed a bit of British winter gardening. There's no urgency. The moments when the air is soft, damp and gentle, and the light a delicate, filtered glow are more frequent than you might imagine if you don't spend a lot of time outside, pottering about and gazing round you like a daydreaming teenager, longing for seduction.
I know bright blue skies and icicles are appreciated, and I wouldn't throw such a day back at you, but it seems to me that mild, moist air and quiet grey skies are at least as desireable. British winters move in and out of cold weather, usually between close to freezing, or just under, right up to pleasantly warm, around 12 degrees centigrade, which could be considered the perfect temperature for easy working. You get the odd sunny day; sucking the juice out of those has given me some of my most perfect gardening moments. Sometimes however, against a gentle grey sky, the light seems to gleam directly from the greenness of the grass. Such a light is miraculous. But it needs a pale bright green to perform that exquisite trick.
Snow, you may note, does not figure too highly. I've always disliked the deadened, muffled disguise; that shining white doesn't fool me. Where are all the plants, oh my god, where are all the plants? Even though I know in my head that they're quite comfortable under there, I can't be absolutely sure. The gardener's rage to control I suppose.
So that brings us to the song - Winterlude, on the album New Morning. Contrary to what you may have thought, this song is only a very little bit over-sweet and sentimental, just enough to make you wonder how close to the edge it's possible to go. The singer seduces his lover in the cold, cold winter. He offers her a warm fire, moonlight, skating, a meal and bold love. He doesn't really claim to love her, she's a "winterlude" after all, but he doesn't need to. Anyone who can use such tender, funny epithets as "my little apple" and "my little daisy" will soon have her dropping her defences. In a way, he's dropped his own - the writer of Desolation Row is coming up with something not far from baby-talk.
I see his little apple as the pale bright green I talked of earlier, the daisy in white and yellow; the colours of freshness and innocence, almost a gardener's imagination at work. And then we have the lilting, dancing melody, and the feeling of youth. We're almost floating through the snowy landscape, down the road, by the telephone wire, over the crossroads and then back to the physical comfort of the warm fire. So intimate, this song, all about touching and pulling close.
And yet I know this song is not considered quite the thing. Perhaps it's a little bit embarrassing, the flimsiness, that choir in the background, some of the images - especially that bit about going down to the chapel. Strangely the rhymes offend by being both slick (in pattern) and haphazard (in banality and slightly off the point meaning). But, you know, I don't care too much, the song wins out for me, the apple and the daisy are worth it. His voice is warm and humorous, he's playing as well as seducing. It's all so........beguiling.
Here's a plant that beguiles me in winter. It started flowering about a fortnight ago, and although it might baulk at a truly cold snap, it's likely to continue until April. Sweetly scented, lemony and vetch-like, it likes to grow in a reasonably sheltered position, with comfortable drainage. It won't put up with being torn about by strong winds, or being lain over in the summer. I don't think it's crazy about being cut back hard, but you have to keep it tidy or it will make too much top-hamper and pull itself away from its moorings. It's called coronilla glauca citrina and has that lovely harmony between leaf and flower-colour that is so satisfying to the eye.
This one is about 3 years old; a graceful but ramshackle structure and makeshift stems suggest it is in a kind of halfway house between a shrub and a weed, despite the aforesaid harmony. No real substance, like our song. But proper little flowers like this, flowering properly in their season, not just the dribs and drabs untimely left over, or over-prompt, like annoying guests - these are the teeth of the hen of the garden.
To pair with this, another reputably tender plant, although I have done nothing but curb it for the last 10 years, including a couple of fiercer colder winter periods. It's vinca difformis, marvellous under a hedge or at the back of a border, just stay alert as it fingers forward. I forgive it for its masses of greyish blue (but the early ones are white) propeller flowers, blooming and blooming from every node from November to May. Far more than any other vinca and for far longer.
But leaves are what I rely on to make me feel whole and happy, even in winter. Skimmias, pittosporums, griselinias (as in the photograph taken at Wisley below) - bright paler greens that look so elegant against the blacker greens of yew and ivy, with the emeralds of box and holly, the silvers and whites of variegated versions pointing it all up. Without the pale greens, the whole of winter is darkly Christmassy. In this country, I want the cheerful green light, I suppose it indicates growth to the atavistic brain, responding to signals below the radar.
Odd about plants that really have it in them to make leafy growth in winter. Arums for example, glamorous pictum with its remarkable expensive-looking variegation or the plainer creticum which will have pale yellow spathes of flower in February, these make luxurious pointed leaves in the colder months.
Then there's geranium malviflorum which develops it's lacy leaves from tubers in November. They grow on until April when you get these delicate, complex flowers. Then the whole thing disappears completely, back underground. You can see the leaves beginning to turn yellow and die off here.
One other - tulip Bakeri Lilac Wonder. Utterly reliable in this climate, it's a lilac bowl of a tulip, with a bright yellow centre and black stamens. It creates stoloniferous roots, and bright green leaves which shoot up about now, the flowers following in March. I wouldn't grow it for its leaves alone, but they are bright and purposeful. Something has to keep us going.
But let me end these heartening thoughts about green leaves in winter with my best brightener - another that's taken a fashion back-seat, but makes me happy anyway; it's my own little green apple, hebe rakaensis. Some people use the word "tump" to talk about a sturdy rounded little plant. I'm not going to in case you think I'm being twee, as some think of today's song. But it is sturdy, and rounded, with no help from the knife, just quite naturally and innocently growing that way. And it is the very best source of the pale green glow, shining and glimmering in the cool air, illuminating other colours.
So that's it, we can round off our winter plants with a glass of something by the fire. Goodwill, comfort and joy, all round!