Written by Cheryl Cummings
During the darkest weeks of the year daylight hours are precious and sun filled ones spent outdoors are even more so. There appears to be little in the garden to encourage us out there now, but there are details well worth a closer look. The dark tracery of branches against a cold pale sky, the scrunch of hard dry leaves under foot and the shiny reflective surfaces of evergreen leaves, ignored all summer as background to finer things, are now indispensable.
There is still colour in the garden, the vivid stems of dogwoods, bright white birch bark, golden Mahonia flowers and shiny red holly berries. But it’s in texture, shape and detail that the interest of the winter garden lies.
The shapely silhouettes of individual trees, crisp lines of clipped hedges, dainty dessicated seed heads, filigree fern fronds and thrusting spears of evergreen iris and Phormium leaves contrast one with another, reinforcing the message that structure is essential to all our gardens.
Evergreen shrubs are the most obvious candidates, Hebe, Skimmia, Choisya, Ceanothus, Cistus, rosemary and sage, all easy to cultivate given the conditions they prefer and room to grow into themselves. Some herbaceous perennials have good winter silhouettes too, Helleborus, Sysirinchium, Bergenia, Epimedium, Iris foetidissima and Polystichum are all reliable.
And then there are the graceful grasses. Bleaching to blonde as the season progresses, many are still standing tall, their seed heads turning to delicate glass beads in frosty weather.
Beauty is there for us to enjoy, but for nature winter is the season of decay, of rotting leaves and collapsing stems and this is key to our gardens’ success, it’s the decomposition of vegetation which creates the soil in which all our plants live. In winter, fallen leaves are nature’s snuggly duvet under which the soil’s organisms are busy at work, now may appear to be down time in the garden but it’s essential to the new life which comes with spring.
A mix of plant types with dense wind proof structure, tightly packed leaves and hollow stems provide shelter for wildlife. Our gardens emulate natural habitats to provide home and forage, mini woodlands, hedge bottoms, open grassland, water margins and countless nooks and crannies in which to find safety.
In reality our gardens are very much alive and full of things to see, so lets get out there and take a closer look.