Friday, January 22, 2016

Garden Guide for English Historical Authors: Winter

by Margaret Porter

This is the third of four seasonal guides, with information taken from 17th and 18th century sources in my personal library. I shot the photographs either in historic gardens in England or in my own 21st century gardens, in which I grow heritage plants. The previous entries are Garden Guide for English Historical Authors: Summer and Garden Guide for English Historical Authors: Autumn.

As winter weather draws the gardener--and others--indoors, attention is given to room decoration. From Christmastide through Candlemas, houses and tables were adorned with greenery as well as various late-flowering plants, everlasting dried flowers, and realistic artificial flowers made of cut paper or other materials.

During the colder months, one could attempt indoor gardening. In his publication The Flower Garden Display'd (1732), Furber describes his method of planting in September some Delftware basins about '18 inches diameter and 1 foot deep' filled with garden soil, planted a central crown imperial. He surrounded it with 'some Tulips, and round them a ring of double white and blew Hyacinths' as well as rings of white and yellow narcissus, double daffodils, vari-coloured crocus, and snowdrops. He included hepatica roots and fritillary roots. In a separate basin he planted anemones. He placed these pots near his chamber window in autumn, and the plants flowered from mid-December to mid-March. 
Furber also described growing--or forcing--bulbs in glasses of water. As this practice became popular, bulb glasses could be purchased from seed sellers or glass shops.

Forcing hyacinths in water and soil

Hothouses usually contained a forcing apartment, for plants and flowers, in which one might find:

"Early tulips, any form of hyacinths, jonquils, polyanthus, narcissus...irises etc., anemone and ranunculuses, all planted in pots of light sandy earth, one, two, or several roots in each pot according to size thereof...or may also have some of the bulbous kinds placed in root water-glasses, admitted to the forcing house, they will also flower early. Annual flowers of several sorts, such as sweet peas, mignonette, ten-week's stock, candytuft, larkspurs...etc. all sowed in pots and introduced in January, February and March near the glasses [panes]."

White and pink hyacinths


One 17th century garden writer advises:

'Little can be expected to be done as to Gardening, and therefore may be termed to the careful Gardener a Month of Rest, wherein he ought to take care of himself in providing a wholesome, nourishing Diet, warm Cloaths and good Fires; yet let him look after such things as yet require his Care, especially in the Green-house, or Conservatory, which now will prove an easie Task, the main being to keep the Windows and Doors well closed, and lined with Matts or other Conveniences, to prevent the piercing Air entering through Crevices; for now the Orange-trees are most likely to be in danger, and therefore if the Weather be extream, assist them with the kindly heat of fire, but not too much, for that does more harm than cold.' The Gardener's Almanack, 1697

Another recommends these tasks: 'Turne and refresh your fruit....Sharpen and mend tools. Gather oziers and hassel [hazel] rods to make baskets in stormy weather. Cover your water pipes...lest the frosts to crak them, feed weak bees.' John Reid, 1683

Other things to accomplish in this month: Spread dung on plant beds and pick snails. Sow salad herbs on hot-beds covered with a frame. Uncover plants when weather is mild or warm. Make hot-beds for asparagus, for cutting in late January. In mild weather, sow peas on warm borders, when they emerge cover with straw to guard from frost. Repair fencing. Trench ground for planting fruit trees. Remove dead tree branches. In frosty weather, mulch new-planted trees. Mulch and stake exotics. Gather medicinal plants: fennel root, henbane, lovage root, harts-tongue, Solomon's seal root.

Cold frame
In the kitchen garden: Harvest cabbages and cauliflowers, if season is mild. Also broccoli, parsnips, carrots potatoes, beets, salsify, parsley, cress, mustard, radish, turnips.

In the fruit garden: Gather remaining pears, apples, medlars, service, almonds, chestnuts, walnuts.

In the flower garden: In wet or frosty weather cover beds of ranunculus, anemones, hyacinths. Cover pots or boxes of seedling flowers in rain or severe frost. Cover carnations and auriculas to protect from rains and snow, but uncover in fair mild weather. Turn earth prepared for the flower gardens. Dig and prepare beds and borders for planting flowers in spring. Ridge up the earth so rain will run off. In hard weather, ready tools for use in spring. 

Cyclamen in winter
Flowers in bloom:  some anemones, polyanthus, primrose, stock-gilliflowers, narcissus, hellebore, red-flowered cyclamen, goldenrod, winter aconite, snowdrops (late in the

Flowering trees and shrubs: laurustinus, spurge laurel, Glastonbury thorn, mezereon in mild weather.

In the greenhouse: Keep windows and doors closed in very cold weather, open during mild weather. Draw down some of the glasses to let in fresh air, cautiously. Water plants sparingly, especially succulents like aloes and euphorbias. Water frequently woody plants--myrtles, oleanders, bays, etc. Keep up the fires in the stove to keep the air dry. Provide good heat to pineapples, else they will not produce fruit in the following summer.

Greenhouse plants in flower: Candytuft, yellow Indian jasmine, cyclamen, geranium, Spanish jasmine, lantana, Indian nasturtium, aloes, chrysanthemum, rudbeckia, campanula, shrubby mallow, aster, plumbago, black flowering lotus, heliotrope.


Essayist Joseph Addison advised gardeners to plan ahead for the colder season by creating a Winter Garden:

'...which should consist of such Trees only as never cast their Leaves. We have very often little Snatches of Sunshine, and Fair Weather, in the most uncomfortable Parts of the Year, and have frequently several Days in November and January, that are as agreeable as any in the finest months. At such time, therefore, I think there could not be a greater Pleasure, than to walk in such a Winter Garden as I have proposed.' The Spectator, September 1712.
Suitable evergreens for such a Winter Garden would be holly, yew, box, and conifers.
Holly standard at Hampton Court Palace
Kensington Palace
In the kitchen and herb gardens: Continue to prepare ground for planting. On warm borders sow radish, carrot, lettuce seed. In severe cold when ground is frozen, carry and spread dung, prepare garden tools, repair hedges. Make a hot-bed for sowing cucumbers. Sow cress, mustard, rape, radish, turnip and salad herbs on hot beds. Cover mushroom beds with earth or fresh straw, old
covering will become rotten with moisture. If buds of asparagus appear in beds made in December, earth them over and cover with frames. At end of month transplant carrots, parsnips, leeks, cabbage near a hedge or wall to shelter from strong winds. Late in month plant peas and beans, sow parsley and chervil.

In the fruit garden: Cut dead and cankered branches from fruit trees. Cover branches of espaliered figs to save tender shoots from frost. If season is mild, prune dwarf trees of hardy pears, apples, vines, gooseberries, currants, and raspberries. In mild weather prepare ground and borders for planting new fruit trees. Mend and repair decayed poles of espaliers as necessary, fastening with wire where they are loose. If weather is mild, plant strawberries and raspberries.

In the flower garden: Cover beds of ranunculus, anemones, hyacinths in wet or frosty weather. In rain or severe frost cover pots or boxes of seedling flowers in rain or severe frost. Turn over compost, so frost can mellow it. In mild weather make new heaps of compost.
Primroses in snow

Flowers in bloom: Winter aconite, hellebore, black hellebore or Christmas rose, blue and white winter hyacinth, scilla, polyanthuses, primroses, single snowdrops, spring cyclamen, hearts-ease, narcissus, periwinkles.

Flowering trees and shrubs: Laurustinas, Glastonbury thorn, Mezereon, spurge-laurel, box tree, witch hazel.
Greenhouse citrus

In the greenhouse: In very severe weather keep frost out of the greenhouse, if it reaches the earth or orange trees and freezes, it will cause the fruit and leaves to drop off. In mild weather provide air to succulents. Care for the pineapples which begin to show fruit.
Greenhouse plants in flower: Double nasturtium, scarlet-flowered geranium, Indian yellow and Spanish jasmines, papaya, aloes, euphorbia, persian cyclamens, China rose hibiscus, African marigold, shrubby African lavatera, amaryllis.


Weather permitting, there is much work to be done.

In the kitchen and herb gardens: Prepare the ground for carrots, parsnips, radishes, spinach, and lettuce, which now may be sown. Sow young salad plants on moderate hot-beds or warm borders near walls or hedges. Sow also parsley, winter savory, marigolds, and sorrel, and most other hardy plants. Plant garlic, shallots, rocambole, and chives. Plant beans. Sow peas every fortnight. Towards end of the month plant potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes.

This is also a good month for establishing an apiary.

Removal of vermin, especially moles, is another recommended task: 'The worst Enymyes to gardes are Moles, Catts, Earewigges, Snailes and Mice, and they must bee carefully destroyed, or all your labour all the year long is lost.' (1659.) How, you might wonder, are moles vanquished? 'Take red Herrings, and cutting them in pieces, burn the pieces on the Mole-hills; or you may put Garlic or Leeks in the Mouths of their Hills, and the Moles will leave the ground.' (1660.)

In the kitchen garden: Gather cabbages, savoys, broccoli, carrots, parsnips, turnips, red beets, salsify, cardoons, spinach, potatoes, artichokes, onions, leeks, garlic, shallots, sage, parsley, sorrel, mint, tansy, tarragon, salad herbs, mushrooms, endive, celery, chervil. Pot herbs and aromatic plants: winter savory, hyssop, thyme, lavender, rosemary, pot-marjoram, burnet.

In the fruit garden: Uncover fig branches in warm weather to prevent mold. Continue to repair espalier frames. Transplant fruit trees. Look carefully after bullfinches, at this season they do great mischief to fruit trees by picking off blossom buds and can destroy all garden fruit in two or three days. Transplant most sorts of hardy forest trees and flowering shrubs. Plant chestnuts, sow seeds or berries of other hardy trees and shrubs and cover with earth. Plant cuttings of currants and gooseberries.

In the flower garden: Plant out carnations in pots place in a warm situation. Sow seeds of auricula and polyanthus in pots or tubs of light, rich earth. Add fresh earth to auricula pots. Near the end of the month, stir the surface of flower beds, clear them of weeds and moss. Late in the month transplant Canterbury bells, French honeysuckle, daisies, rose campion, foxgloves, pinks, sweet williams, bachelors' buttons, campanulas, thrift, scarlet lychnis, columbines, goldenrods, and other fibrous-rooted plants. On dry frosty nights cover beds of ranunculus, anemones, and tulips to protect from injury. Rake and clean in the wilderness, because the flowers under the trees are beginning to bloom. Edge the grass walks and lawns, and roll them when the ground is soft. Make hot-beds for tender annual flowers.

Flowers in bloom: Winter aconite, Persian iris, early tulip, saxifrage, black hellebore or Christmas rose, blue and white winter hyacinth, polyanthuses, primroses, single snowdrops, spring cyclamen, hearts-ease, narcissus, periwinkles, single anemones, yellow and purple crocuses, spring cyclamen, spring daffodils, daisies, hepaticas, hyacinths, Persian iris.

Flowering trees and shrubs: Laurustinus, red and white mezereon, spurge laurel, traveller's joy, white-flowered almond, cornelian cherry, filbert, hazelnut, Gastonbury thorn.
In the greenhouse: When weather is mild and air soft, admit air into the greenhouse, cautiously at first and never when the wind is sharp. Water myrtles, oranges, geraniums and other hardy plants. Pick off dead and decayed leaves. Make hotbeds to sow tender exotic seeds.

Greenhouse plants in flower: Indian yellow and Spanish jasmines, papaya, aloes, euphorbia, Persian cyclamens, China Rose hibiscus, African marigold, shrubby African lavatera, amaryllis, cotyledon, coffee-tree, hypericum, Mexican lily, starwort, Indian gladiolus.

Rose arbor in winter

English Garden History: Spring Guide
English Garden History: Summer Guide
English Garden History: Autumn Guide

Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, is her latest release, available in trade paperback and ebook. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.


  1. Pretty amazing how certain varieties can endure much harsher conditions than others. And how some varieties need just a little help to get along:)

  2. Yes, it is amazing. And to think there was no forecasting as we've got now, so that greater precautions couldn't been taken in the most extreme conditions. Nowadays we get warnings in advance when severe cold is coming....

  3. The 17th century passion for tulips has interested me recently ... and I see you mention them a few times. How early in the century did they become sooooo fashionable, and speculation reign? I'm reading a book now which said it was in the 1620's, which seems a bit early?

    1. The tulip was introduced to Europe from Turkey in the mid 1500s, but they remained a rarity. Whatever is rare, becomes fashionable. It was nearly a century later, in Holland, that the height of Tulip Mania occurred. The financial speculation was based on the perceived value of the striped/variegated tulips. The mania peaked in the summer of 1636, continuing for some months until the financial "bubble" burst early in 1637. In fact, the tulip bulbs retained extremely high value throughout the 17th century and continued to be highly-priced. Though not quite at the same levels as during the mania.

  4. Henbane is an annual and the root will have long gone by December. I wonder how experienced that particular writer was?

  5. The author of the manual declares that "the calculations here made, are not taken from any one particular season, but by comparing a diary which the author has kept many years; and from a medium of several years observastion..there is frequently the difference of a fortnight or three weeks, between one season as another"--as gardeners know to be true.

    As for henbane root in December...I have sometimes seen annuals thriving in December in England the 20th and 21st centuries. My snapdragons were blooming into December this year, as were my sweetpeas. And I live in harsh New England! I therefore tend to assume that anything is possible--within reason! But you have inspired me to compare this particular manual with one of the others to find out whether the authors agree!


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