garden design dorset

Clothing the naked winter garden

Clothing the naked winter garden

Despite our recent storms, snow and rain, we do get more pleasant winters with sharp, crisp air and startling low winter light and on these occasions us outdoor fanatics want more than flat borders and bare twigs to gaze out at. So, what are my top tips for winter structure, green fullness and colour?

Firstly, foliage is an element of plants that is often overlooked. Contrasting evergreen leaf forms and colours can offer an interesting and pleasing outlook, and whilst there are many evergreen shrubs and trees to consider we shouldn’t overlook the contribution afforded by perennials that keep their foliage all year. A native of Argentina and Chile, Libertia grandiflora, or Libertia chilensis as it has now been renamed, has Iris-like strappy, slightly weeping leaves that form a neat mound up to 2’ tall. Its narrow leaves contrast well with other evergreen perennials such as the large leathery leaves of Bergenia, the furry silver leaves of Stachys byzantine, the serrated palmate leaves of Helleborus or the scalloped, semi-evergreen leaves of Heuchera. And to top it all Libertia produces sprays of small white star flowers in spring.

Of the evergreen shrubs my favourites are those offering winter scent such as the deliciously sweet Sarcoccoca humilis (a lower growing variety), Eleagnus ebbingeii (which is also good as a hedge), Skimmia japonica. Mahonia or the semi-evergreen Daphne bholua. Other shrubs offer a softer alternative to the obligatory but formal looking box balls. Pinus mugo ‘Mops’ has a naturally rounded shape and can grow to 5’ or so if allowed but it’s very slow growing and pruning will easily keep it to a manageable size. But it’s worth allowing its delightful candle-like new growth to emerge in spring before any formative trimming takes place.

Some deciduous trees, though bare of leaves in winter, have such a striking form that they offer strong interest especially when lit at night.  The highly fastigiate (upright) hornbeam Carpinus betulus Frans Fontaine is one such, and being based on a native species it is very tough and will cope well with many soil types including clay as well as freezing temperatures. Growing to a maximum height of perhaps 30’ it will still only reach 10’ in width. And as a younger tree it can be pruned to give it an even more formal or contemporary shape. Witch hazel (Hamamelis) too is deciduous but its richly scented, spidery winter flowers and appealing mature spreading form makes up for its winter nudity.

For those who enjoy clipping everything in their garden topiary is of course a top choice; there is a huge variety of evergreen trees and shrubs that can be used to form shapes of all sorts including Buxus, Taxus, Eleagnus, Olearia, Ligustrum and Ilex. If you’re looking for interesting shadows on large expanses of lawn, then I believe simpler shapes work best. But a mature cloud pruned hedge, with billowing forms one rolling into another, is a marvel of wonder.

So, don’t just put the garden ‘to bed’ for winter – give it some green clothes to wonder at and keep it awake right through to spring.

Libertia grandiflora
Spidery witch hazel flowers