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The Butchart Chronicles : November 18, 2016

Garden Notebook: Christmas 2016

Take a Christmas And Winter journey through The Gardens


We have arrived at what we celebrate as our 5th season of the year – Christmas. What better place to showcase and celebrate the season than in the garden that Jennie Butchart so carefully laid out over 100 years ago. I have to admit that it’s a little challenging to write about something exciting in the garden without the feeling of being completely overshadowed by the magnificence of our Christmas display.

The fact of the matter is that we still have many visitors visiting during the daytime and the garden itself still has plenty to offer despite the upstaging provided by the colourful decorations and displays.

The design of the garden reflects the genius of Jennie Butchart and some of the significant plants which she originally chose are now the most distinguished subjects that highlight the Christmas light display. Some of the best examples of this are the row of Walnut trees which are painstakingly wrapped with thousands of lights and the magnificent Beech trees at the entrance to the Japanese Garden, where illuminated stars and icicles are suspended throughout their canopies.

On frosty mornings the garden takes on an ethereal quality as the entire landscape is glistening in the sunlight. These exceptional moments provide the best opportunity to contemplate the structure of the garden itself – a time to experience the glimmering garden in its most uncomplicated form.

Winter is truly the only time of the year when you fully appreciate the composition of the plants and plantings in the garden. With such an extensive collection of plants, we have many that exhibit unique characteristics such as exquisite forms, intricate bark textures and patterns, obscure flowers, fascinating seed pods and colourful berries. These features may not occur and/or can be easily overlooked and disregarded for most of the year. However, this is not a time to casually glance at the garden, but it’s a time to look a little deeper and actually observe and experience a deeper beauty.

Moving onto things much more practical………in our climate we typically don’t get much of a break in the gardening season, unless of course, it snows. There are many gardening tasks that carry on through the winter and probably the most important one is pruning. This is really a good time to prune many plants - especially overgrown deciduous shrubs as you can easily see the structure of the plants and prune them to your desired shape and size.

One of our distinctive characteristics is maintaining an exceptionally clean garden. Our biggest challenge at this time of year is working around the all-encompassing Christmas display which can hinder our efforts at times. We cut back our perennial borders and remove as much organic debris from the garden as possible - something not commonly accepted as a good gardening practice in this day and age. I won’t make a statement on this, but I will say that our practices have provided us with undeniably good results for the past 112 years and will continue to do so for the next 112.

I suppose that this is as good a time as any to talk about our practices and what we do with our garden debris – especially all of the leaves that we collect because they are obviously an integral part of any natural system. At the Gardens we are so focused on cleanliness that we generally rake up every leaf that happens to fall in an area that is visible to the visitor. This is an especially good practice for any lawn areas or annual borders as the wet leaves can virtually smother and kill the plants that lie below.

Leaves probably make the best compost for your garden as they are relatively rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium. We separate our leaves and compost them on their own – sometimes you may hear the finished product referred to as “leaf mould”. In some areas we have set up small composting bins and return the finished compost directly back to where the leaves originated. This is probably a little excessive for most people, so feel free to add them to your regular compost if you so desire. In woodland or semi-woodland and even in shrub borders, it is often preferable to let the leaves remain as natural mulch.

When time and weather permits (and of course where we can safely maneuver around Christmas props!), we also take the opportunity to mulch to our borders at this time of the year.

Thankfully, not all garden projects for us take place outdoors as there is a lot of activity indoors as the planning and preparation of our Spring Prelude display takes place in our greenhouse facility. Many trees and shrubs are brought indoors and thousands of bulbs are prepared for forcing to ensure that the display opens with a flurry of colour. New props and features are assembled and tested to ensure that there are no surprises on opening day. The same care and artistry involved in creating and maintaining the outdoor garden can be seen in every element of this fabulous indoor display. I will provide you with more details of what you can expect to see in the next newsletter. 

I do believe that we all need to experience a little bit of winter to better appreciate the vibrancy of spring and the fullness of summer – this holds true in the garden as well. I will end with this quote from the famous poet William Wordsworth in his poem ‘A Farewell’. As we put the garden to bed to close this gardening season, we have the promise of new beginnings to look forward to in the New Year.     

O happy garden! whose seclusion deep
Hath been so friendly to industrious hours;
And to soft slumbers, that did gently steep
Our spirits, carrying with them dreams of flowers,
And wild notes warbled among leafy bowers;
Two burning months let summer overleap,
And, coming back with Her who will be ours,
Into thy bosom again we shall creep.
 -
William Wordsworth

Garden notebook written by Rick Los, Director of Horticulture