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Winter reflections

By garden designer John Frater. The garden in winter is wonderfully peaceful, but don't let it pass without using this valuable lull in activity to reflect and assess.

It is easier to assess the garden in winter than any other season when all you have to look at are the bare bones and there is plenty of time. The rush and surge of spring is a distant memory, the heady scents and dizzying colours of summer have faded, and the blaze of autumn colour has vanished in the wind. Now is the time to walk through the garden on a clear frosty morning, all wrapped up warm, with a hot cup of coffee in your hands. I reckon there are three things worth reflecting on at this time of year: Evergreen content, light and succession planting.


You will at this time of year be starkly aware of the amount of evergreen planting in the garden. There is an often quoted rule of thumb that a planting scheme should be made up of approximately one third evergreens. This amount of evergreen planting, spread throughout the garden, will hold it together in winter and provide a solid foil for the ever changing scene of herbaceous and deciduous plants of spring and summer. The ubiquitous Buxus, clipped into simple balls or cubes, is a favourite of mine.


Other good evergreens for structure include the various Juniper shrubs, especially those columnar in habit like Juniperus 'Blue Arrow'. Many of the 'spiky' evergreen plants make a great contribution to the scene in winter.


Astelia are increasingly popular and featured strongly at Chelsea this year. If you need a little more interest in the shade try Astelia nervosa, which is even happy in the dry shade under trees.



Secondly, as you wander quietly through the garden at this time of year you can't fail to notice the quality of the light, assuming that the sun is out of course! The low light and long shadows more than makes up for the lack of floral colour. The effects can be sublime - I often think that this is what winter gardening is all about! All you have to do is make sure your garden takes advantage of this light in as many ways as possible: Again topiary is a great way to 'capture' the subtle quality of the low light as it rakes across the garden. This is especially so when you have clipped the box or yew into angular shapes. Grasses such as Stipa gigantea with their bleached flower spikes and seed heads also capture the light and can often seem to glow, especially in early morning or late afternoon. Many herbaceous perennials such as this Agapanthus will also capture the light wonderfully in their bleached flowers stems.


Trees and shrubs with branches that spread out horizontally seem to hold onto dew drops and rain drops which also capture the light beautifully. A great example of this would be Cornus alternifolia 'Argentea'.


Thirdly and lastly, I find it a great time to think about succession planting. Those bare patches under the tree or at the base of some shrub. How about planting them up with Arum italicum or woodlanders for the spring such as the graceful Erythronium 'Pagoda'? Think about how you might lengthen the season of colour by introducing new perennials such as Alliums into the herbaceous border to cover the period when many of the plants are still winding themselves up. The native Primula vulgaris and other early flowering varieties are also excellent for colour early in the year. Combine them with Narcissus tete-a-tete for example. The great thing about primulas, if your conditions are right, is that they don't mind the shade of high summer perennials so they can happily be threaded through a border.
So that's my top three things to consider as you wander around the garden in winter. However, don't forget that winter is the great pause in the gardening calendar that makes spring and summer so special. So as well as planning and scheming your way through the winter make sure you pause too - taking time out to appreciate the unique peacefulness of the season.

By John Frater

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