Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The British Garden in Winter

Considering all the rain we’ve had lately, and looking at my own soggy garden, I asked myself:

“Can a garden look good in a British winter?”

I mean, it’s all very well the books & glossies eulogising about “frosted seed heads and frozen spiders’ webs on crisp, sunny days” but what about the dull, damp weather which seem to form so much of our winter months?

For gardens on a somewhat grander scale than mine, the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, near Romsey in Hampshire boasts the largest winter garden in Europe, using massed plantings to give good winter structure and colour – though The National Trust now seems to challenge this, claiming their property at Dunham Massey: Cheshire, to be the largest winter garden of its kind in England! Their site also offers some advice on creating your own winter garden

Looking good whatever the season...

As a professional garden designer, I am (of course!) convinced that a great design can lay the foundation for a garden which will look good whatever the season - but what makes “a great design”? Well, it should be composed of strong basic shapes and have a balance of mass & space; it should employ structures such as walls, screens & pergolas - using materials which are sympathetic to the property and its environment - together with architectural planting such as hedges and groups of trees & shrubs, to create framing of any external views or to focus attention to interests within the garden space if there are no external views, as would be the case in most suburban / town gardens. The highlights in such a design then arise from the counterpoints of light & shade, colour & texture set against these basic elements - and it is the changing mood of this relationship through the seasons which brings dynamism, excitement & subtlety to the design. Andy Sturgeon addresses this subject in a Guardian article, stating that “Winter lays bare the bones of a garden and so is a good test of the strength of its design.”

What sort of planting?

In the main, the planting of a garden that has winter interest will rely on trees & shrubs, not perennials, for its form, and on berries, stem/bark and foliage, rather than flowers, for colour.

Perennials, ferns & grasses...

To avoid it looking a soggy mess on those days when the climate is not bright sun & frost, select perennials with interesting seed heads that retain strong verticals, or good mounding forms, as they die back, or those that retain good leaf structure ready for flowering in early spring. Plants such as Echinacea, Echinops, Foeniculum, Geranium, Hellebores, Heuchera, Lythrum, Papaver, Rudbeckia, Salvia, Sedum spectabile and Veronica fit the bill.
Also make use of the ornamental grasses – in a garden of sufficient size to cope with its bulk I love the way a stand of Miscanthus species can capture low light levels in their faded-amber colouring; in smaller gardens use billowy drifts of Stipa tenuissima, perhaps blended with the taller and more erect grasses like Panicum and Calamagrostis. I’m especially fond of Pennisetum ‘Red Buttons’ which retains a low mound of arching basal leaves and holds the faded flower heads aloft on wiry stems through the worst of gales, to wave around in gentler breezes, looking delightful against even a winter sky, or a reflection of that sky in a still pool. Grass-like perennials such as Dierama and even some of the Irises & Kniphofias can be used to similar effect.

My last mention in this section goes to the ferns, which are, in the main, naturally at home in damp or soggy, low-light conditions. The various genera & species cover a range of sizes, and most have that beautiful “shuttlecock” shape with either glorious bronze deciduous fronds or semi- or fully- evergreen fronds in greens that range from pale-with-reddish tints through to near-black. They’ll also reward you with the fascinating “bishop’s crosier” forms of their new growth at the end of winter – these develop astoundingly quickly into their fresh fronds.

Don’t be too keen to clear up your perennials after they’ve flowered - you can see my earlier blog on the virtues of not doing too much autumn tidying up work here but remember that leaving fallen leaves to rot down beneath the trees will work best around shrubs and those perennial plants that would naturally exist as woodland marginals (Aconitum, Anemone hybrids, Astrantia, Bergenia, Brunnera, Dicentra, Epimedium, Geranium sylvaticum, Polygonatum, Pulmonaria, and Tiarella), not those which like sun & open spaces – as these may well rot themselves if buried under wet leaves.


There aren’t too many trees (other than conifers, of which there are a great many forms & colours) which are reliably evergreen in our climate, the main ones being Acacia dealbata (Mimosa), Arbutus (Strawberry Tree), Cordyline (Cabbage Palm), Eucalyptus (Gum Trees), Ilex (Holly), Ligustrum lucidum (Chinese Privet), Luma apiculata (Myrtle family), Magnolia grandiflora, Pittosporum, Prunus laurocerasus or Prunus lusitanica (Laurel), and Quercus ilex (Holm Oak) – though, of these, all but the Holly will only succeed in sheltered aspects in the milder parts of southern England and many are very slow growing, more often regarded as shrubs or hedging than trees.

In fact, whilst I like to include evergreen structure – most often in the form of shrubs rather than trees – it’s the deciduous trees that can be the real stars of winter structure. Go for those with great “skeletal” form and amazing bark textures or colours. Some of my favourites are:

Acer griseum (Paper Bark Maple), with flaking, curling, coppery bark which reveals a shiny cinnamon-coloured “skin” beneath, and has pretty leaves through the summer that take on great autumn colours too; it’s a small, slow-growing tree, so is ideal for a small garden’s focal point and associates really well with ground-cover perennials & grasses.
Acer capillipes (Snake-Bark Maple) which has striped grey-green bark on the trunk and older branches. This is also a small tree, but with a much denser crown and larger leaves that have all the colours of New England in just one tree during the autumn.
Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis (Chinese Birch) a taller, graceful tree with grey-pink peeling bark or Betula utilis var. Jacquemontii (Himalayan Birch) which is a larger tree with stark white bark on its select cultivars such as ‘Dorenbos’, ‘Grayswood Ghost’ and ‘Jermyns’. Our native Betula pendula (Silver Birch) can also be very attractive with its rough, craggy silver-and-charcoal bark. Prunus (Cherry) varieties, especially P. Sargentii and P. Serrula are justifiably renowned for their shiny chestnut / mahogany bark.
Salix alba and S. daphnoides (Willow) varieties also have strongly coloured winter stems that give a similar effect to the Cornus (Dogwood) shrubs, but on a larger scale. They need to be hard pruned by stooling or pollarding to ensure a good supply of the colourful young stems.

For trees that don’t have especially good bark colour, but which retain colourful berries, remember the Euonymus europaeus (Spindle) and Sorbus aucuparia (Rowan, Mountain Ash) varieties, especially those with yellow or white-pink fruits, rather than orange-red fruits, as they are less appealing to birds, and so last longer – some examples being S. cashmiriana, S. hupehensis, S. vilmorinii, S. xanthocarpa and S. ‘Joseph Rock’. There are also winter-flowering trees, notably Prunus, and in particular P. subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ which will blossom from November through to early spring.


Amongst the many winter-flowering evergreen shrubs that make great companions to the trees are: Camellia varieties (but protect from exposure to icy winds and don’t plant facing east as the quick-thaw after frost will damage the flowers), Daphne odora, Garrya elliptica, Mahonia japonica & M. media varieties, Sarcococca and Viburnum tinus. Also don’t forget the luscious-looking, winter-lasting berries of Gaultheria (Pernettya) mucronata varieties. Deciduous winter-flowering shrubs include Chimonanthus, Corylus, Daphne, Hamamelis, Jasminum nudiflorum,
Lonicera purpusii, Stachyurus and Viburnum.

More information on plants which look good in winter can be found in this Telegraph article.

Where to find out more...
Obviously, designing a garden with great winter-appeal needs more than just selecting individual plant species that last well or provide foliage, fruit or flower colour. It’s the arrangement and combination of these, and other artefacts such as benches, planters and so on, which make the garden work. So, do some homework ... buy or borrow books which cover designing with plants – I can recommend the Hillier Gardener’s Guide series published by David & Charles – or, if you don’t have the time or enthusiasm, ask for help from a professional garden designer!

So, can a well-designed garden look good in a British winter? You bet it can!

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