Last weekend, the first part of Creating a Winter Garden considered structure and flowers. Thanks to everyone who shared images of their winter gardens: those small moments which lift our spirits on short December days.
Stems and Bark
The scarcity of winter flowers means that a wall liberally covered in clematis ‘Freckles’ is a precious sight, but a successful winter garden needs to rely on more than flowers for year-round visual impact. Stems and bark create drama in a garden of any size – if you have room for a small tree like the popular Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula), it will add a coppery sheen to even the dullest winter afternoon. I used to have the privilege of a mature specimen just beyond the garden and without any room in our own plot for extra trees other than the apples, plum and greengage I planted upon arrival, I counted myself fortunate to be able to ‘borrow’ this cherry, along with a tall silver birch in my neighbour’s garden to the left and a hazel to the right which drops its nuts over our fence. Then, a few years ago, the cherry was removed to make way for a shed. I still mourn the loss of the mahogany giant, more than I miss the resulting loss of privacy beyond our fruit cage.
Himalayan silver birches have an ethereal quality which lifts any dark space. In the magnificent grove at Anglesey Abbey these slender trees are underplanted with evergreen Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ and tulips in spring. However, unnamed forms of Himalayan silver birch (Betula utilis) vary greatly in size and most will outgrow a small garden. Val Bourne recommends Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Silver Shadow’ as the smallest, slowest growing birch with white bark, reaching 8m when mature. The Chinese red-bark birch (Betula albosinensis) is also a winter beauty with smooth cinnamon bark beneath the peeling layers, although cultivars will reach up to 15m when mature. Acer griseum – the paper-bark maple – also looks spectacular in winter as its textured bark peels and flakes like a lizard shedding scales. At a mature height of 10m or less and with vibrant red autumn foliage, this is a hard-working tree for any medium-sized garden.
If your garden, like mine, is too small for additional trees – don’t despair! Rich colours can still be achieved by using stems rather than tree trunks. Bamboos offer colour all year round. Phyllostachys nigra has matt black culms and Phyllostachys aurea golden-yellow. Over the summer I visited the 2 acre Henstead Exotic Garden in Suffolk, where the bamboo grove is both delightful and powerful; the height of the plants alongside the sheer density of the thicket, transported me to another world. I felt drawn to the plants, to run my fingers up the smooth grain and round the ridged nodes. Even a small area of bamboo can create a tranquil ambience in a garden with its exotic form and gently swaying culms, but the atmosphere will be far from relaxing if the bamboo rhizomes transgress outside their allotted space, so always find out which species are suitable for your garden and add any necessary barriers to protect the rest of the garden from exploring roots.
I couldn’t end my musings on winter garden stems without mentioning shrubby dogwoods. As regular readers will know, I admire these plants for their resilience, versatility and vibrancy in the depths of winter. I currently have ten dogwoods in my garden, of three different species: Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, but I also love the variegated Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ and the dark, almost black stems of Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’, both of which I’ve planted in previous gardens and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ which was looking fresh and alive with such bright yellow-green foliage en masse at Bressingham Gardens in Norfolk earlier in the year.
Grasses and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ creating contrasting layers in Bressingham Gardens
The advantage of these shrubs is that they can be stooled (cut back to near ground level) in spring and will slowly regrow throughout the summer as a quiet backdrop to other shrubs and perennials, and then be ready to take over once winter arrives. Single plants can be used in this way in small borders, but they look better in groups of three or more, especially if they are kept as smaller plants. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is not as tolerant of hard pruning as the other species, so I lightly prune the three in the front garden each year to manage their size and shape, and to encourage new stems which have the best winter colour. I have a larger specimen in the back by the potting shed, which I leave to grow to around 1.5m and cut back by about a third every couple of years. ‘Midwinter Fire’ also has the advantage of gentle orange autumn colour and this year, in the shelter of the back garden, the foliage remains even though it is long gone at the front.
One of the most pleasurable sensations on a winter walk is when you suddenly catch a sweet scent stealing over a garden wall or from a hidden shrubbery. Using fragrance in a winter garden entices you to stop and appreciate the sensory experience, grounding you in the physical garden rather than just passing quickly through en route to the warmth of the home. Plants with winter scent need to be situated carefully – in a place where their fragrance will be caught in passing, so front gardens and containers are ideal spots. One of the best plants for winter aroma is Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa) with its tiny white flowers belying its intoxicatingly sweet scent. Alongside evergreen foliage, its tolerance of shade and ability to create a neat hedge mean that Christmas box is a must have for any serious winter garden.
Viburnum x bodnantense is another shrub whose insistent perfume causes a pause for a moment’s joy when out walking and Dan Pearson recommends the cultivar ‘Deben’ or Viburnum farreri ‘Candidissimum’ which can be seen at Anglesey Abbey with its white scented flowers. Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) has lemon scented flowers which cover this rather untidy looking shrub for much of the winter. It doesn’t stand alone as a specimen plant, but works well combined with evergreen shrubs, waiting in the background whilst its perfume pervades the surrounding area. Daphnes also provide a beautiful winter scent, with Daphne odora and Daphne mezereum being the best choices for colder gardens. It’s worth noting that daphnes are highly poisonous, so not suitable for gardens with young children. Where scent is concerned, it only takes one fragrant shrub to add magic to a cold bare garden and if grown in a container, once the flowers have gone, the container can be moved to make way for spring bulbs.
Look out for winter jasmine this month and flowering quince and hazel flowers in late winter/early spring
On Saturday, I’ll be looking at seed heads, containers and crops in the winter garden. Hopefully the weather will be kind over the weekend and enable a few forays out into the fresh air. 🙂
If you’d like to follow my blog, I’ll be adding Creating A Winter Garden (Part 3) at the weekend…