I have just frittered away an entertaining half-hour watching a blackbird trying to snatch berries from a pyracantha growing on a north wall. It is fatal having windows in any room in which you are trying to work. Action outside inevitably increases inaction within.
This blackbird, a male, his beak buffed up to a rich shade of courting gold, was too big to balance on any of the branches of the pyracantha. It is trained very flat against the wall. Instead, he did pogo jumps from the ground, fluttering madly in mid-air, trying to sustain height long enough to snatch a berry from the clusters. The effort he put into it probably explains why there are still masses of berries on the bush.
Pyracantha is not a posh shrub, but it should not be spurned on that account. It is evergreen. It is at its best when the rest of the garden is terminally depressed. And it grows in shade, though the berries take longer to ripen. It is also very tractable in the matter of training. The pyracantha that the blackbird is still raiding (how can his ankles stand it?) is planted under a window. The first growths were trained out horizontal with the window ledge to make a T-shape. From inside, you see a ruff of berries along the windowsill.
Growth was always more vigorous on the right hand side where there is a large expanse of stone wall. When a suitable shoot presented , I trained it up the side of the window. It is now tickling the eaves. From this, various side shoots emerged and these are tied in parallel rows along the blank wall beside the window.
The window is an old-fashioned wooden casement, with rectangular panes. Over time, we managed to arrange the pyracantha into a mirror 'window' alongside, with upright shoots crossing the parallels to make 12 rectangles, four up, three across. Every now and again I snip away shoots that zoom off in the wrong direction and tie in the ones I want to keep. I like the fake window. It makes me smile.
'Orange Glow' is the variety here. It makes a dense, vigorous shrub. It was originally discovered as a chance seedling in a garden in Wageningen, Holland in the 1930s. The berries are deep orange and it has the usual white blossom in May. The blossom looks much the same on all pyracanthas, but the berries can be red, orange or yellow.
North walls are almost easier than east. They get little sun apart from the odd slanting beams that drop in at the beginning and the end of the day, but they are less treacherous than east walls. These can be equally cold, but get a burst of sun – if there is any – at the beginning of the day. This is sometimes fatal to plants which have been frosted overnight.
Most gardeners know that east walls are bad for camellias, but other plants can react just as badly. Cells that have frozen need to thaw out gently, like water pipes. An early blast of sunshine may cause too quick a thaw and rupture the walls of the plant cells. Fortunately, pyracantha is immune to such problems.
In our old garden, we had another pyracantha that grew in a far worse position, against the lean-to building that used to be my tool shed. It was built of stone with a slate roof. The whole thing was quite densely overhung with the drooping branches of a yew tree. But the pyracantha, in this case the orange-red berried P. atalantioides, well mulched with muck, coped even with this unpropitious billet.
The berries did not last so well. That is because the branches were trained in parallel rows along the sloping roof of the lean-to and the birds could ski down from the ridge and sit on the slates, feasting. I fixed the branches in place with galvanised vine eyes wedged at intervals under the courses of the slates.
Overhung shade is much more difficult to deal with than the ordinary kind. Lack of sun is less of a problem than lack of light. Limbing up a tree, that is, lifting its canopy by taking off one or two of the lowest branches, will often improve the situation dramatically. It is a much better option than butchering the tree all over, leaving it looking as painful as a hand with the fingers chopped off at the knucklebones.
Every year, round about now, I go round the garden making sure that everything that needs air space has got it. It's a good time to adjust the balance of a garden. With us, that usually means stooling down hazel. Hazel is a wonderful tree, although you scarcely ever see it growing as a single-trunked specimen. Its value lies in the fact that if you cut a stem of hazel down to the ground, two more will spring up in its place. In this way, a hazel develops into a handsome clump, with stems of various ages and thicknesses all growing up together.
But gradually, older stems are pulled outwards by the weight of their top growth. Those are the stems we take out, gaining pea sticks and fire wood in the process. Since we came here, we've been self-sufficient in wood (which means that in 10 years we've not switched on the central heating). A hazel coppice is an endlessly renewable resource, over a period of about 15 years. That's how long it takes for a new stem to grow into useful firewood. In the cutting, we lose some catkins, but only a tiny proportion of what remain.
If I had a town garden, long and thin as so many of the older ones are, I'd fill the area at the end with hazel, underplanted with primroses and Solomon's seal. Sometimes such gardens end in railway cuttings, or other views you don't particularly need to see, and hazel with its spring catkins and butter-yellow colouring in autumn is as beautiful as it is useful. If you have an allotment, you have a ready source of bean poles. Birds and insects love it, too. It grows fast and needs little attention.
I've also been cutting back the mahonia, whose flowers bumble bees have been raiding all through this mild winter. They were among the first shrubs we planted here and they grow in rather a dark corner made by the boundary hedge and a similar hedge we planted of mixed natives (yew, beech, thorn, holly, spindle). We have two kinds of mahonia: 'Charity' and 'Lionel Fortescue' but I don't notice much difference between them. Both bloom superbly with topknots of sweet smelling yellow flowers from November through to about now.
Left to themselves, they grow tall (up to 5m/15ft) and rather gaunt, and the bunches of flower, that come only from the growing points, are too high up to smell. So after flowering each year, I cut a couple of the longest stems down to within about 1m/3ft of the ground. There are usually bands at intervals on the ridged, furrowed bark of the stems and I make the cuts just above one of these. This season, a new shoot will start to push out from the old stem and by this time next year, it will be flowering. At an altogether more friendly height.
WHAT TO DO
* Prune spiraeas, tamarisk, willows and dogwoods by cutting out at least a third of the old wood at ground level. Thin out the stems rising from the trunks of pollarded willows or poplars.
* Sow broad beans in pots or boxes (greengrocers' wooden boxes lined with newspaper are ideal) setting the seeds about 7cm/3in apart so that their roots do not become too intertangled. Germinate the seeds in a cold frame or a cool greenhouse and set out the plants in the open ground when they are about 5cm high. On heavy soil or where mice and birds are a problem this is a more reliable method than sowing direct in the ground.
WHAT TO MAKE
* 'Hedgerow Baskets' is the appealing name of a two-day course being run this month at garden designer Arne Maynard's garden, Allt-y-bela in Monmouthshire. Judy Hartley, who is leading the course, promises that everyone will leave with the skills to make their own baskets from wild-gathered material. The dates are 24-25 Feb (9.45am-4pm), the cost £195. To book, call 020-7689 8100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org