Winter’s hand still is keeping a tight hold on the temperatures so far this month, but the noticeable increase in light levels is encouraging and our patient wait though the darkest days is rewarded as a rummage through the dishevelled undergrowth reveals the emergence of the first flowers of spring.
Pointed spears of daffodil bulbs, the delicate white bells of snowdrops, golden yellow winter aconites, witch hazel and rising from last years leaves Hellebore buds are opening out into the most exotic and beautiful flowers. They are a magnet for the first queen bumble bees of the year, tempted out of hibernation early by a mild spell.
I've never been the type of gardener who shuts up shop at the end of November, cuts everything down to the ground and puts the garden to bed for the winter, to me that amounts to wilful destruction of essential habitat. I admit there are some plants which collapse into a mushy heap at the first frost and are just too messy to live with, but I always leave the majority of perennials in my garden to stand with the ornamental grasses as bleached silhouettes right through the winter, to offer food, shelter and safety to the myriad other creatures with which I share my garden.
In late autumn they are festooned with dew covered orb spider webs, they look fabulous in the frosts, give a home to over wintering insects and are fastidiously picked over by birds searching for any remaining seeds. But they have taken a battering by the strong winds and are looking a bit the worse for wear now so if the weather’s agreeable I’ll get out there to make a start cutting down and clearing up. All that dead top growth has also been protecting emerging new shoots too, so if it stays really cold I'll wait until later in the month or even March and by then there will be a lot more new growth for me to see too.
Unlike clearing up at the beginning of winter, after which parts of the garden are left looking bare and bleak for weeks, we know that despite the cold there is so much new life getting ready for the first signs of spring to burst through the soil and break from branches. Now it's an altogether much more cheerful and uplifting exercise and with sweet birdsong for accompaniment what better way to see off any residual winter blues.
It's not just plants feeling the very first stirrings of new life, this is the month for amorous frogs to come back to the pond to spawn. Those glistening balls of black studded jelly are for me the real beginning of a new year in the garden and just as exciting to see as they were when I was five. I gave up collecting frog spawn in jars many years ago but despite the finger numbing iciness of the water I just can't help it, I still have to get my hands in there!