Planning a winter garden

T S Eliot was wrong. April is not the cruellest month. That’s January. Gales and rain, doomy skies and the apparently interminable trudge towards spring. Hardly the time to be thinking about your garden, much less for venturing out there. But a bit of planning can change all that.

It’s now that the layout of the garden is exposed and if the design on the ground is weak, it will be a sludgy mess of broken stems and slimy green paths. Your voluptuous English herbaceous border, so graceful and blowsy and oozing gorgeousness in summer, will look as crushed as a damsel with an empty dancecard.

The great English gardens have Helen Birch on Winter Gardenscrisp walls of yew to frame them and cones, pyramids and balls of box and laurel that act as living sculpture when everything else has retreated from the cold. On a grand scale that seems easy to achieve, but even in smaller gardens it’s possible to include enticements outdoors as well as something to admire through the window. Winter in the garden is about form and structure – and fragrance.

So it’s the time to celebrate evergreens and winter plants that pack a powerful, perfumed punch, along with straw-coloured grasses that still stand tall and seem to filter the hazy winter sun and perennials whose seedheads strike a pose against skies stripped of colour.
Originally published in Meze magazine

Like so many plants that are at their best now, Sarcoccoca confusa, or winter box, has shy little flowers that send out a heady scent. It’s evergreen, too and loves shade. Ideal for cramped urban gardens overhung by trees or a difficult, north-facing site. Go for large specimens or plant a few smaller ones in groups, as they are slow to take off. The spidery ochre flowers of the witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ remind me of warming licks of fire and their scent is divine.  And the large, upright Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ produces densely packed, pale pink heads on bare branches that pump out fragrance.

Underplant these shrubs with the Harvington varieties of the lenten rose, Helleborus x hybridus, whose colours range from white to yellow through pink to deepest burgundy and come in single or double forms. Handsome as the leaves are, the experts cut them off now so that the clusters of long-lasting, nodding flowers can really sing. Turn them up to face you and they are a thing of wonder.

Grasses will lift the spirits of that crushed damsel-in-the-herbaceous-border. Every garden should have some, because for ten months of the year they earn their place. In summer and autumn they lend height and airiness and act as a foil for flowering perennials. In winter, the tall, sun-loving varieties, such as Miscanthus (there are loads of cultivars, but my favourites are M. sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ and M. malepartus) and the stiff, architectural grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ give the garden backbone. In the low-slung winter sun their faded tips glow palest gold. Cut them down in late February and they’ll be back in April with fresh, young growth.

It used to be the thing to cut all perennials down in the autumn, but some should be left alone. The sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, for example, with its prominent, bud-like seedheads, together with the tight little pompoms of Turkish sage, Phlomis russelliana, provide textural contrast to the grasses and food for the birds.

For inspiration, if you live in the south-east, visit Anglesey Abbey, which has a wonderful, dedicated winter garden and steep banks scattered with all the different kinds of snowdrop. Then dream of next January.

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