At this time of year it’s a blessing that some plants continue to look good even after they’ve turned up their toes. You have to experiment – I find a lot of the plants supposed to hold on to their seedheads, like Rudbeckia, Echinops and many grasses, actually collapse sideways into a soggy heap around November, which hardly counts as winter these days. But when you find the ones that work, they really are worth their weight in gold (which is the colour many of them are on a frosty winter’s day, too).
In the depths of winter when there’s little else to entertain, this is a marvellous change from the usual evergreen blobs. Massive architectural stems hold aloft these sculptural pincushions right through the worst of the weather. Even better are the downy tufts of golden fluff that sit inside, adored by the birds for winter nest material, and beautiful when the sun catches them, too. They’re mostly gone by this time of year – though you can see some of the effect here:
As if all that wasn’t enough, cardoons hold a rosette of serrated, sword-shaped slate-green leaves at the base all winter, which then develop into even more stately beauty next year. I love cardoons at any time, but now they take centre stage and I appreciate them more than any other plant in the garden. You can’t ask for more than that.
We had the first really hard frost of the year last night – down to minus 7 degrees, which is pretty low for any time of the year in this part of the world. We’ve had a couple of minor ground frosts in the last few weeks, but this one has really sent temperatures plummeting.
I love frosty nights, mainly because they’re almost always followed by a day of glorious winter sunshine which makes the garden sparkle as if it’s been dusted with diamonds. I’ve left as many of the seedheads on this year as I felt I could, and it’s in these conditions that they really reward you for it: the ones in the picture are Helenium “Moorheim Beauty”, which were beginning to go a bit soggy and brown but have been transformed this morning by their frosting of mini-icicles.
Leaving seedheads on à la Piet Oudolf can be a bit hit-and-miss, I find. Some are strong enough to cope, but others (even ones Mr Oudolf recommends) collapse very quickly into a rather uninspiring mass of damp bobbles. A client of mine has an otherwise lovely clump of Rudbeckia, which are supposed to stand most of the winter, but despite my exhortations to last at least until Christmas I think I’m going to have to tidy them up in a week or so as they look just awful at the moment.
The lovely fluffy puffballs that adorn my cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) on the other hand have been wonderful – the birds think so, too, as everything from great tits to starlings have been tugging great clumps of fluff out of them to line their winter quarters with. I’ve got another flock of bluetits which have been stripping the seeds off the Stipa gigantea (which has been truly gorgeous this year – you can see why everyone raves about this fabulous grass). They also perch precariously on the wildly-waving bobbles of Verbena bonariensis to feast on the seeds inside: now this is one plant which stands bravely no matter what the weather, though I think mine are about to lose their heads if the birds carry on the way they are. It may be winter, but it’s not boring.