Name: Witch hazel.

Botanical name: Hamamelis.

Family: Hamamelis virginiana is the witch hazel native to North America. The native Asian species include Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese witch hazel meaning sweet, and the Japanese species, Hamamelis japonica. These species have variations on each other, but have been interbred to create hybrids. Hamamelis has its own family, the Hamamelidaceae, which contains some excellent genera, including parrotia, fothergilla and disanthus. Parrotia is known by the common name of Persian ironwood and it comes from areas of latter-day Iran. Its flowers are small and it is principally grown for its excellent autumn colour. Fothergilla is also known for its good colour, but it also put on a good show of brush-like small white flowers in spring. Disanthus has the same family trait when it comes to autumn colour, but it looks like the foliage of cercidiphyllum. All of the members of the witch hazel family like acid soil.

Garden value

The scent of witch hazel carries for a considerable distance from the tree, especially on a warm day, and often gives away the presence of a tree before it is seen. Each time it is seen, the beauty of this plant offers a surprise: it is always better than expected.

The flower clusters carried on bare branches have spidery, narrow petals that are an adaptation to flowering in the cold months of late winter and early spring when larger petals would not fare so well. With twists and curls, the petals have a jaunty aspect that provides a great lift to the early spring scene.

The branches are hazel-like, though the two species are not related. Witch hazel must have seemed magical to the European settlers of North America, hence the common name. Flowering lasts for three to four weeks, mostly in January and February.

Growing witch hazel

Witch hazel is a small tree, capable of growing to about 4m tall and wide in a good spot. It will need adequate space to allow it to spread its branches, so that it does not look cramped. Although it needs space, other plants can be grown under it. It can be a very elegant addition to a small garden.

The most common and popular variety is ‘Pallida’ with pale yellow flowers. ‘Arnold Promise’ is a smallish grower but carries a plentiful crop of yellow flowers. ‘Diane’ has deep red flowers and ‘Jelena’ is coppery orange. The plants start to flower when quite young and it is possible to choose a favourite when in flower at this time of year.

In autumn, the leaves change colour to beautiful shades of rich pure yellow, or yellow with a crimson flush for the dark-flowered kinds. The tree is as spectacular in autumn as in spring and it deserves to be placed in a prominent position near the edge of a border, reaching out over a lawn or paved area.

Witch Hazel is easy to grow in well-drained, neutral or acidic soil. If the soil is limy, it could be prepared by digging in good quantities of garden compost or leaf mould. Mulch with rotted leaf-mould each spring or every second year to acidify the soil where the witch hazel is grown.

Kitchen garden

Site and soil

The kitchen garden area – small as it might be – is used for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs of your choice according to your needs. But what do the plants need to get started?

Kitchen garden plants need to grow for only a few months in summer to reach mature usable size. Radishes or salad crops, for instance, can be usable in six weeks. Early apple varieties take just 14 weeks. This can only happen where there is plenty of sunshine and good shelter.

Ideally, the kitchen garden will have a south-facing slope with deep topsoil, but not so many gardens have this. South-facing ground absorbs more heat from the sun but every garden can be improved over several years by an application of organic material such as garden compost, rotted manure, straw or green manure, such as phacelia. Organic matter improves the nutrient quality of soil for plant growth and its physical structure that allows air to penetrate a nice, crumbly soil structure. Plant roots need air.

Close up of phacelia.

The ideal kitchen garden soil is of a dark brown colour and crumbling texture. Poor soil is light in colour and maybe sandy. Heavy soil tends to be dark in colour and sticky. In general, kitchen garden vegetables like to have a fairly high pH, up to 7.5, while fruit crops like to have a lower level of 6. This aspect need not be over-complicated because most vegetables and fruit do well at about neutral pH 7 or slightly below, say pH 6.5. A reliable gauge of acidity in your area is if hydrangeas are pink or red, signifying limey soil, or blue/purple, indicating acid soil. Small, inexpensive pH test kits are available from garden centres. To reduce acidity, apply garden lime.

Shelter is important for keeping the air a few degrees warmer but sheltering hedges or trees should not block the sunlight. If the site is exposed, consider planting a shelter hedge which will give five to 10 times the distance of shelter. Beech is good on dry soil; hornbeam for slightly more heavy ground.

Drainage is another aspect to consider, particularly on heavy soil as roots die in wet soil. Use raised drills and raised beds on heavy ground to improve surface drainage. Try to avoid wet areas or put in land drainage pipes.

Raised beds do not need to have timber supporting the sides – simply raising the bed with soil from the pathways in the style of traditional lazy beds about one metre wide, or raised drills, is enough.

This week

Trees, shrubs and roses

Although there is still time, bare-root or root-balled deciduous trees in shelter belts or hedges should be planted within the next few weeks. Bush roses and repeat-flowering climbers should be pruned in the next two weeks, if not already done. Rose bushes can still be planted from pots.

Fruit, vegetables and herbs

Tidy up old rhubarb crowns and remove any weeds. Sow seeds of early varieties of cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, lettuce and onions in a tunnel or glasshouse for early crops. New fruit trees should be planted as soon as possible. Prune blackcurrant bushes now.


Although the ground has been very wet, if possible, begin lawn mowing if not already done. There is heavy moss growth and control might be necessary. The lawn edges can be straightened and humps and hollows sorted out. On areas for grass sowing in March or April, allow the soil to settle.

Greenhouse and house plants

To restart strong growth, most greenhouse plants in pots will benefit from an increase in watering and also begin feeding. Sow seeds of tomatoes for greenhouse growing, also peppers and chillies. Check for signs of greenflies on greenhouse plants and house plants.


Perennial flowers are showing good growth in many cases and lifting and dividing of herbaceous flowers can resume. This is the best time to move perennial flowers in gardens on heavy soil. Sow seeds of bedding geraniums, lobelia, busy lizzie and bedding begonia now.

Read more

Gardening with Gerry: choosing vegetables to grow and pruning fruit trees

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