As the days get shorter the sun sinks a little lower day by day, right up until the winter solstice when the days stretch out again. Low sunlight slants through the garden at an angle rather like a spotlight in the theatre. Everything looks more dramatic. Colours deepen and make more of an impact on the eye. The slightest texture, whether it's an uneven path or a wrought iron bench, shows every lump and bump.
Trees, mostly devoid of their foliage, turn into living sculptures with textured bark below a fine tracery of stems. They resemble a finely lined charcoal sketch, etched against a winter sky. When frost descends, the landscape becomes magical whether you're driving across country in a car, or making a pilgrimage to an open garden. Fortunately there are plenty of gardens that look fabulous in winter. There’s always a touch of red, whether it's a cluster of holly berries, a scattering of crab apples or some colourful lipstick-red stems from Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’.
Evergreens are especially good in winter and they offer a warm richness and it's no wonder that our pagan ancestors believed in the Green Man. Every winter garden contains some high-gloss green foliage and hardy ferns such as polystichums and polypodies can be allowed to mix with handsome bergenias, silvered pulmonarias and oriental hellebores.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, when it comes to winter plants, is how fragrant they are. They have to attract early pollinators but big, blowsy flowers are out. Ribboned, marmalade-tinted flowers, like those of the witch hazel or Hamamelis, waxy Daphne flowers in cool-pink, early viburnums, wintersweet, winter honeysuckle (Chimonanthus praecox) and sarcococcas waft their fragrance through the garden. They need to be planted near seats, gateways and paths. It’s also a good idea to have some winter planting that you can admire from the window, when the weather keeps you indoors.
Whenever you get the chance it's well worth visiting a good garden and you'll find it just as handsome in winter as it was in spring, summer and autumn.
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10 wonderful winter gardens
The National Trust’s Anglesey Abbey and Gardens
This long-narrow winter garden has a meandering path, to there’s a surprise round every corner. Touches of red are supplied by a shimmering orange and red-stemmed willow named Salix alba var. vitellina 'Britzensis’ and red-stemmed dogwoods. The bloomed white stems of ghost bramble, Rubus thibetanus, curl and twist above a carpet of hellebores. There's plenty of winter scent to and one of the key plants is a green-leaved Christmas box, named Sarcococca confuse. The tiny ivory white flowers pack a powerful lily fragrance despite the fact that there are any clusters of stamens. By February there are plenty of crocus and snowdrops in flower too.
Cambridge Botanic Garden
This city garden in the bustle of Cambridge boasts the earliest winter garden of all. It was planted up in 1979, by Garden Superintendent Peter Orriss and Garden Supervisor Norman Villbut, and it's still spectacular.
The garden inspired other head gardeners to follow suit and create winter gardens of their own. Evergreen hedges provide a warm background and the ground is full of little humps and hillocks visible from the winding paths. It's relatively small-scale has inspired many a gardener to have a go. Key plants include a winter flowering evergreen, Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, and the paper-bark maple Acer griseum, or paperbark maple, with a cinnamon-stick trunk. A shrubby dogwood named Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ forms a bonfire of small twigs.
The National Trust’s Bodnant Garden
This is undoubtedly one of the great British gardens in one of the most splendid settings, high above the River Conwy in North Wales. The mild Welsh climate and plenty of Welsh rain create the perfect conditions for choice plants, including magnolias. The winter garden, which replaced an old Edwardian rockery, opened at the beginning of 2012 after a two-year planning and planting stage. There are some wonderfully gnarled Japanese acers, Acer palmatum, under the benign shelter of white-stemmed Himalayan birches and these are interspersed with Prunus serrula, a cherry tree with shiny chestnut-brown bark. This winter garden is flat, level and accessible to all. If you'd like a longer winter walk, follow the streamside paths down to the Dell and the Old Mill where you can warm up with refreshments around a roaring brazier at winter weekends.
The National Trust’s Dunham Massey
This seven-acre garden in Cheshire, which is Britain’s largest, used to be an impenetrable, overgrown area until the garden team began clearing the brambles and laying new paths. It opened in 2009, so the new additions have had 10 years to mature, under already established oak and beech trees. It’s home to 1600 winter shrubs, trees and evergreens chosen for their scent, colour and texture and many of them were suggested by the great plantsman Roy Lancaster. More than 120,000 bulbs and shrubs were planted during the first autumn with the help of 1,500 members of the public. There are carpets of snowdrops, including 61 named varieties, and 77 varieties of daffodil and 50 varieties of camellia. They light up spring although the garden has plenty of scented evergreens that shine in midwinter.
The National Trust’s Mottisfont Abbey
Although this garden is principally known for its collection of old roses, it's brilliant in winter as well when this 1 acre garden comes alive. There’s a huge collection of plants for winter interest and part of the garden is damp, so the willows are very spectacular. The garden team pollard them every year so that they produce vivid wands in colours that ranged between pink. orange and red. The garden is particularly strong at ground level and it will give you plenty of inspiration about what to plant in your own garden whether it's bergenias, hellebores, or periwinkles.
The National Trusts’ Dyrham Park House
If you've enjoyed the new adaptation of Sanditon, Jane Austin's last unfinished novel, you will recognise Dyrham Park because much of the filming took place here. Winter strolls will bring you into close contact with the deer herd browsing in the park and there are guided walks held here in the morning and just after lunch. Expert ranges explain more about deer, the ancient trees and Dyrham's landscape. The gardens north of Bath and the Prospect walk has a viewpoint that looks across the Bristol channel to Wales beyond. A new winter mindfulness trail immerses you in Dyrham's tranquillity and there should be plenty of wildlife in the woods. The winter garden has plenty of bare branches where black caps, red wings, goldcrests, robins and long-tailed tits can be regularly seen. Dogs are not allowed into the main park, but they are welcome in the dog walking area next to the car park.
The Savill Garden
This is a gem of a garden throughout the year and part of Windsor Great Park. It was created by Eric Savill in the 1930s but brilliant gardener called John Bond developed the garden and made a truly spectacular. The acid soil supports rhododendrons, magnolias and chameleons and their heathers in abundance. Although Magnolias don’t flower until spring at the earliest, they often display wonderfully woolly buds in winter and these catch every droplets of moisture. The muted yellow to olive green stems of Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ suit the mellow atmosphere and this garden is usually free to visitors during the winter months. The Queen Elizabeth Temperate House poinsettias provide festive cheer in the lead up to Christmas and hyacinths and scented narcissi fill the Temperate House with perfume through to January and February. It's a garden for every season.
The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh
This garden should be a place of pilgrimage for every gardener, because of the wide collection of plants on offer in a series of magical settings. The garden boasts one of the largest and best rock gardens in the world, a stream garden, herbaceous borders, a collection of Chinese plants, a water ravine and a woodland garden. The herbaceous borders are left untrimmed in winter so they are always a mecca for local birds. When the sun comes through the woody stems and seedheads it's a very magical place. If it's chilly, often the case in Edinburgh, the garden has the tallest temperate palmhouse in Britain to escape to and fragrance abounds. 100,000 plants can be found in this 70 acre garden.
The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens
This was the private garden of Sir Harold Hillier, one of only two men ever knighted the services to horticulture. Close to Winchester, it still has the feel of a private garden, but it's very imaginatively planted. The Winter Garden is very close to the visitor pavilion and there are 650 different plants to inspire you in your own garden. They’re designed to be colourful from November until March. It was such a popular feature that the garden team extended it to 4 acres in 2014. There are all the usual suspects, but the bamboos are particularly spectacular because the thick canes take on a rich patina in winter light providing uprights in gold, olive-green and almost black. This 180 acre garden supports 12,000 species of plants and it has 14 national plant collections and around 400 champion trees – more than any other garden in the UK. Another must-do for gardeners.
RHS Hyde Hall
Every RHS garden (whether it’s RHS Wisley in Surrey, RHS Harlow Carr in Yorkshire or RHS Rosemoor in North Devon) is planted for seasonal interest and they all vary due to their differing climates and soil. Hyde Hall, in the dry county of Essex, opened their winter garden in 2018. Striking plant combinations include the glossy leaves of Viburnum odoratissimum underplanted with the contrasting yellow foliage of the evergreen Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’. There are 100 different types of cornus, or dogwoods, but this garden also uses grasses extensively and they’re terrific in winter because they shimmy and shake. Pennisetums, able to survive the winter in Essex because it tends to be dry, provide translucent bottlebrush heads and the winter sun catches every detail.
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