The warming hearth of the winter garden
There is a stillness and calm to winter that I enjoy perhaps more than any other season.
The hectic, competitive floral shouting of spring and summer has mostly gone, to be replaced with a spiritual stillness and a reassuring warmth of colour that only the lower sunlight brings. This autumn has seen some spectacular leaf colour, perhaps thanks to the extended summer sun, particularly in beech leaves where the usual copper has blended with yellows and golds, best enjoyed with the sun passing through against a deep blue winter sky.
There are many plants offering gardeners the opportunity for a veritable bonfire of autumn tones in even the smallest gardens. From the tree world you have the cherry red of mountain ash such as Sorbus Dodong, the golden leaves of some maples or the maidenhair Gingko biloba, with its exquisite fan-shaped leaf, and the sweet-shop mixed reds, oranges and golds of the aptly named liquidambar, which is now also available in a smaller columnar form.
To this can be added shrubs such as the burnt flushes of Cotinus (smoke bush), the bright flaming red of Euonymus alatus compactus (fire bush), the yellows and reds of dainty shrub Nandina domestica (Sacred Bamboo) and the copper of beech trained as a hedge, clipped ball or column. Even some herbaceous plants produce some striking autumn foliage. The large, fleshy leaves of Bergenia turning red look fabulous against a silver or grey foliage backdrop, but my latest discovery is Potentilla x tonguei, a low-growing ground cover with long lasting orange flowers and a gorgeous fall display of yellow, orange and red on strawberry-like leaves. And of course, we shouldn’t forget those ornamental grasses which, having provided a dreamy softness to the summer border now display a range of warm reds, such as Panicum virgatum Shenandoah, butter yellow, in Miscanthus and Molinia, or the golden haze of old seedheads in natives such as tufted hair grass Deschampsia cespitosa. Placing a few blue or silver-green evergreens into the mix, such as Juniperus Blue Arrow, Pittosporum Silver Queen or Hebe Blue Haze, sets off these richer colours wonderfully.
Bark and berries also play an important role in the autumn. I am currently working on a garden near Shaftesbury which will feature a small woodland glade where the abundant, rich red berries of the crab apple Malus x robusta Red Sentinel will be contrasted against the stark white bark of Betula pendula (birch). An alternative, that works well as a focal point, multistem tree, can be found in the rich mahogany bark of Tibetan cherry Prunus serrula – to get the most from this in winter peel off any old bark and give the trunk a polish with a soft cloth.
Through autumn and into winter plant structure and form also become emblems of reliability and continuity, symbols that we can endure no matter what political or environmental turmoil is going on in the world. In a border setting the rigid, vertical, sky-gazing form of dried flower stems of herbaceous plants such as Veronicastrum virginicum or Veronica longifolia and columnar trees like Amelanchier Obelisk contrast beautifully with the horizontal clouds of umbellifers such as Achillea and Sedum. Add in movement with the buff and golden tones of ornamental grasses and you’re set for an easy-care winter garden that will delight right through the coldest and wettest months of the year.