Light evenings have disappeared and even during the day, the house is cold and dim. I feel like my only contact with the natural world is during the increasingly dark school run and an occasional Sunday volunteering with the local Wildlife Trust.
November and December are the hardest months of the year for me; so this is the time when I need to make a conscious effort to bring nature into my life.
Here are a few of the simple ways I try to bring a bit of the outdoors in and keep smiling through those dark winter months:
Spending time in woodland has been proven to have a positive effect on both physical and mental health, so exercising beneath the trees is a win-win activity.
I love to run and cycle in the nearby woods, with canopy arches and bryony berries hung through the branches like early Christmas garlands.
Returning home covered in mud, with a handful of catkins in my pockets, I carry the feel-good factor through the rest of the day.
Even when I can’t make it to the woods, just walking down a tree-lined street or watching the birds feeding on next door’s cotoneaster berries lifts my spirits until the next time I can get out amongst the trees.
A marsh tit enjoying some cotoneaster berries
Colourful winter containers
Returning home on a chilly evening, the first cheerful sign I see is the hanging basket by the front door with its trailing ivy, dwarf lemon cypress (Cupressus ‘Goldcrest’) and glossy red checkerberries on Gaultheria procumbens.
Winter containers by doorways and paths add colour and interest to the garden at a time when many plants are dormant.
Try evergreens such as the grass-like purple-black Ophiopogon nigrescens, Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ with its shiny dark green leaves and red berries, surrounded with red and white nodding cyclamen.
For the first time this spring, I was surprised to feel a little nostalgic when the new foliage began to emerge. I’d spent much of the winter learning to identify the local trees by their buds and silhouettes, and fallen in love with the bare beauty of winter trees.
The alders are slender and divided, whilst the black poplars by the chalk stream are ancient – probably over 200 years old and misshapen due to repeated strikes by age-old lightning.
Alder buds are elongated - like plump boxing gloves
The lime on the turning circle has warm, red buds that are easily identified by the kids.
It’s helpful to use a good ID guide like Winter Trees: A Photographic Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs. A hand lens also offers an invaluable window into the miniature world of bark and bud scales.
Sketching and painting found objects is a creative way to get involved with nature in winter. We bring home berries, twigs, fluffy old man’s beard and snails shells to peer at under the hand lens and to draw with pencils, pastels and paints.
Snail shells can provide artistic inspiration
My daughter has put together a sketchbook of her drawings and when we go out for walks, her time spent exploring the minutiae of our found objects helps her to identify the plants and animals we see.
Although the vases of summer dahlias are long gone, we bring in winter jasmine and fragrant viburnum twigs to brighten up the kitchen, and the kids arrange hazelnuts and conkers on their windowsills.
For a touch of flamboyance in these sombre months, you can’t beat the gigantic flowers of Hippeastrum (sometimes known as Amaryllis).
Bulbs take around six to eight weeks before flowering and can be planted between October and January.
A single bulb can produce up to many large blooms and our favourites include velvety red ‘Premier’, vivid pink ‘Hercules’ and snow white ‘Picotee’ with its striking red edging.
After the flowers finally fade, we cut down the flowering stalks, water and feed regularly, and retire the bulbs to the greenhouse for the late spring and summer. After a semi-dormant period in a cool place from late September, leaves can then be cut back and the plant top-dressed and grown on as you would a new bulb.