After the bursts of colour through spring and summer we all get that dejected feeling that comes with dull grey cold winter days. When we talk of gardens or garden design how many of us give any thought to a winter garden? Most consider the garden to be dead in winter. However, the garden is not dead, it is merely resting and moving at a much slower pace. If we learn to look and observe, there is much to be enjoyed in a winter garden.
Not until it awakens from its winter slumber when we see those first signs of green shoots appearing does our interest ignite again in our outdoor space.
Winter gardens can be very peaceful. When designing it is best to think about the garden through all the seasons including winter. For a garden to look beautiful in winter you have to apply thought to the structure of the garden. It is the structural elements that will give the garden a backbone, hold it together and make it interesting through the winter months. By structure I refer to the branches of trees, stems, the shape of shrubs and hedges and the proportionate use of evergreen plants in the garden. Winter is not a time for colour in the garden as these tend to be muted and restrained. However, it certainly is a time for atmosphere. Hedges are great for backdrops to beautiful planting schemes, but they come in their own when you see their ghostly silhouettes on a foggy winter morning or evening. The same applies to interesting carved shrub shapes and dramatic branch structures of some trees.
At Levens Hall the evergreen topiary provides structure but the magical shapes provide interest throughout the year. When these shapes are touched by the frost they become other worldly.
Winter gardens are less about flower colour but much more about texture, bark and stem colour. The winter garden is not completely void of colour. One of my favourite plants to use for winter colour is Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’. Plant this in groups of 5 or more and you really will get a shrub that looks like it is on fire. Be clever about positioning these. When the low evening sun hits Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ it just adds to the vibrancy and drama of the colour. Prunus serrula ‘Tibetica’ is one of my favourite trees. It has year-round interest but in winter you can really appreciate the glossy burgundy colour of the bark which looks as if it has been bound with copper wire. Other trees to consider for winter interest are Tilia cordata Winter Orange for its firey orange stems, Betula utilis var Jacquemontii for its beautiful snow-white bark and Acer griseum for its peeling bark.
Prunus serrula Tibetica is tree that provides year-round interest. It’s the bark and the tree’s branch structure that create the drama in a winter garden. The branches look as if they have been wound with copper wire.
Scent becomes much more precious in a winter garden so plant them close to an entrance or along paths where you can take advantage of them. Viburnum bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ has a scent that will make you stop in your tracks and inhale deeply. Hamamelis (Witch Hazel) has a spicey scent through its spider like flowers which come in yellows, oranges, pinks and reds. Edgeworthia is another great choice of plant for the winter garden. Flowers appear on bare stems and a highly scented. Sarcococca confusa has the most delicious honey scent.
Additional interest in a winter garden can come through berries, hips and seed heads. Infact more vibrant colours in the garden during winter will most certainly come through berries and hips. Callicarpa bodinierie has a profusion of purple berries and I always choose to plant two or three of these plants together so that they make real impact. Do not be in a rush to deadhead all your roses. Leave some to develope into rose hips as these will provide sparks of reds and oranges through the colder months. Some rose that are worth growing for their hips are Rosa glauca, Rosa rugosa, Rosa Bobbie James, Rosa Bonica, Rosa Paul’s Himalayan Musk and Rosa Westerland. Berries, hips and seeds also provide food for wildlife. For seed heads consider Phlomis russeliana, Phlomis fruticans, Nigella damascena (Love-in-a-mist), Alliums, Rudbeckia maxima, Eryngium Physic Purples, Cephalaria litvinovii, Telekia speciose, Lilium martagon, Lunaria annua
Seed head of Nigella damascena (Love-in-the-Mist). Photo credit: tumblr.com
Seed heads of Lunaria annua. Photo credit: pxfuel
The cones of Rudbeckia maxima will remain for the winter still providing interest. Through their silhouetted shapes. Photo credit: Bally Roberts Gardens
Evergreen plants act like backdrops for colourful perennial planting and tend to recede through the spring and summer months. However, come the cold winter months they become they become the stars of the garden. Consider using shrubs such as Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’, Osmanthus burkwoodii, Lonicera nitida ‘Scoop’. Some plants like Ilex crenata and Taxus baccata can be topiarised into interesting sculptural shapes. One just has to look at Japanese gardens and the stunning cloud trees that have be grown and clipped to perfection over many years. Levens Hall in Cumbria is a perfect example of a garden where evergreen shrubs have been sculpted into magical shapes. Imagine these being touched by frost on a cold winter morning creating the most picturesque view to look out at. It reminds me Alice in Wonderland. Within the evergreen palette of plants, we must not forget the pines and conifers. There is an abundance to choose from. I love Pinus mugo Mops which is a small compact pine. Pinus sylvestris waterii have beautiful branch structure so worth considering as a tree but they can also be shaped into standards with mushroom heads.
The winter walk at Angelsey Abbey is worth the experience especially on a frosty morning. Here you see the firey stems of Cornus Midwinter Fire. This plant is perfect for planting on mass but position it so that the it is back lit by the low winter sun and it really does look as if the whole group is on fire as it glows.
I tend not to rush into cutting everything down in autumn. Many plants can provide interest in a winter garden even when the die back. Ornamental grasses can look very striking in winter ranging from pale parchment to golden honey tones. They provide movement in the garden when the wind blows. Their feathery plumes add interest. Consider where to plant them as they look spectacular when they are back lit by the low winter sun.
Do not forget winter containers. They always provide a warm welcome to the front door of the home. You can keep them very simple by planting oversized Box balls either side of the door however, I prefer to plant my winter containers up with a group of plants that will provide colour and texture. Maybe the limey colour stems of Cornus flaviramia, movement and froth through Stipa tenuissima, mixed in with evergreen ferns, hellebores and violas. I also like to have something draping out of the pots so may use some long stem ivy or Muhlenbeckia complexa. I tend to bury bulbs of Narcisuss Tete a Tete or Tulipa bakeri that start popping up just as the weather starts warming. They add elements of surprise as spring approaches Last but no least remember to enjoy the little gems in your garden like the cobwebs that are touched by the morning dew dangling like little diamonds or the frost that sparkles on the lawn and on top of your hedges and shrubs. These can all add to the joy of a winter garden.
The jewel colour of the Callicarpa berries is a must have in the garden for winter. The berries will stay on even after the leaves have fallen off. It is a great plant for Winter containers mixed with other winter plants such Stipa tenuissima, Hellebores and Violas.
GARDENS TO VISIT FOR WINTER INSPIRATION
- Angelsey Abbey
- Levens Hall
- Painswick Rococo Garden
- Stowe, Buckinghamshire
- Hanbury Hall
- Dunham Massey
- Chirk Castle, Wrexham