December is definitely the time to look back at the successes and failures of the year before moving on to the exciting planning for next year.

Overall the garden looked great this year. I was aware of all the weeds but I don’t think visitors (unless they are avid gardeners themselves) really notice them. All the beds were highly productive and pretty much as planned.

A new herbaceous bed in July

The outstanding bed was the new rock/alpine garden – it was a joy all season. One plant in particular deserves recommending – Achillea ‘King Alfred’ flowered from spring until late autumn. The thymes were also great performers. They loved the sandy soil and gritty mulch and grew much faster than I had anticipated so they are all running into each other. They are Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’, Thyme ‘Doone Valley’, T. s. coccineus, T. pseudolanuginosus. Santolina ‘Lemon Fizz’ is good fun and I tried and failed to take some cuttings, obviously not carefully enough.

The unusual feature in the bed is a small Monkey Puzzle tree. We bought this, height 13 inches, about 5 years ago. It was in the front garden but grew not an inch in three years, so, thinking it was not in the right spot, I moved it into a pot while deciding what to do with it. This year I wanted to find it a permanent home since it was still just the same, no growth that I could see. The only place that seemed even remotely suitable was the rock garden, so that is where it went. I am going to measure it in a moment but I am pretty sure it still hasn’t grown. Anyway shortly before moving it there I decided to look up growing these trees and found that it is quite usual for them not to grow for years after being moved! I should have left it where it was.

My passion – herbs

My real gardening love is herbs. I discovered them when I first worked in Birmingham Reference Library in the early 70’s and was serving some lovely ancient herbals to readers. I started growing them in my parents’ garden and in all my subsequent gardens. What I really love is the sensuality of gardening with herbs. Every time you work amongst them the scents are delightful: lemon balm, marjoram, rue, mint, curry plant to name but a few. I love their histories and the knowledge that you are working with plants with a long tradition of cultivation and use. I love their simple beauty.

The first herb border

And then there are all their uses. There is nothing like popping outside to gather a handful of herbs for the lunchtime salad. For me, the most interesting addition to salad is Buckler Leaf Sorrel – wonderfully lemony. Young horseradish leaves also pack a punch, but every herb adds a new dimension to your salad.

In consequence most of the plants in this garden are probably herbs. They are a main feature of almost all the beds and some of them are represented in all the beds, e.g. marjoram, although once you’ve got it it’s pretty difficult to stop it being part of every bed. The other delightful thing about many herbs is how much the insects love them: Gatekeeper butterflies on marjoram,  for example (I have only just learned how specific butterflies are in their tastes); bees on borage and hyssop (pink as well as blue varieties); hoverflies on parsley that has gone to seed, all a delight to watch.

So the idea is to incorporate herbs into the garden in every way and increase the number I grow, which is in excess of 60 varieties at present. I have the main culinary herbs and am trying to introduce cultivars in new borders.

Last winter was difficult for some of the herbs and I am hoping that this one won’t be as cold. I know now to cover the bay, which has come back amazingly well after frost damage, but much of the growth is very young and would be highly vulnerable in a long, cold spell. Since living in the south midlands I have managed to keep rosemary every winter whereas in the Pennines I lost it pretty well every winter. I have introduced some varieties which are not as hardy as the species Rosmarinus officinalis and was very worried about how they would get through last winter. Oddly enough the only one I lost was R.o. Maybe because it was a taller bush. Who knows.

Here’s to a mildish winter and an early spring!

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