Visits with interesting plants

Visits January/February 2019 – Winter Gardens

Who says winter is dull?

It’s not easy to keep the back garden looking interesting in winter and I suspect most of us focus on plants that look good in the other three seasons. There are some fantastic public winter gardens that show what can be done though. They combine colour from bare stems and bark with scent from the surprising number of winter flowering shrubs and, in the dark days of January, the irresistible allure of snowdrops. By February there’s even more colour from winter aconites, dainty little winter-flowering irises and of course, hellebores.  We may not be able to copy the winding paths, massed plantings or pollarded willows in our own patch, but perhaps there are a few ideas that could be copied on a less grand scale at home.

Cambridge Botanic Garden

Set in the botanic garden in the centre of Cambridge this is the oldest of the three winter gardens I visited and is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year.

The curving main path meanders through wide borders packed with an impressive variety of plants. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ glows in the sun, as does a claret-red thicket of Rubus niveus and the hairy, red arches of Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius). The borders are so wide on one side that you’d find it hard to see all the plants, except that there’s another, much smaller path that’s tucked in at the back. This gives you a very different view and leads you close to some of the fantastic scented like the Japanese apricot, Prunus mume ‘Omoi-no-mama’ at one end, and two tall Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ at the other, attracting as many bees as people to its scented, pink blooms. This garden is an all-round sensory experience. It may be 40 years old and have a slightly 70s vibe in places, but it hasn’t stood still with some recent re-planting helping to bring it into the 21st Century.

What could you use at home?

With the huge range of plants used, there are plenty of ideas to take away. Bamboo, heather, the wood rush Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’, orange libertia, grasses and most cornus varieties could be grown in any garden. Many of the scented shrubs would tend to fade into the background during the summer, but if you’ve got space who wouldn’t want to grow evergreen Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ with its pretty pink flowers and heavenly fragrance, or the equally perfumed Viburnum farreri ‘Candidissumum’. If there’s space for a tree, maybe it should be the Japanese apricot, Prunus mume ‘Omoi-no-mama’ which smells delicious and looks very pretty in bloom.  

If you have a small patch that catches the sun in winter, it would certainly be possible to have a few hellebores, team them with miscanthus which would also look good in summer and autumn, and pop in at least one cornus. Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ has dark red stems and yellow leaves that look bright for most of the year, and as the hellebores finish flowering it would be easy enough to add annuals, or have some herbaceous perennials (geum, salvias, echinacea) and let them take over.

Anglesey Abbey

A sunny morning in February is the ideal time to visit a winter garden, and Angelsey Abbey, a National Trust property on the outskirts of Cambridge, has possibly the ideal winter garden.

Open since 1998, one of the main draws for the many people who flood here at this time of year is the collection of snowdrops, which apparently number over 300 varieties, some of which were discovered at Anglesey Abbey.

Many of the snowdrops are found in the winter garden where they’re used as underplanting to a wide range of plants. Even if you come for the snowdrops, though, you should take time to admire the skill of the planting here, which will dispel any thoughts you might have had of a bleak mid-winter. There is nothing bleak here. The colours are vibrant, and the scents of the many winter flowering plants hit you at every curve of the winding path.

The things that impress most here are the massed planting and the element of surprise, as you turn a corner and are greeted by an assembly of cornus stems glowing in the sun or you’re assailed by the glorious scent of a mass of sarcococca (Christmas box). At the final bend you’re greeted by the ethereal white stems of a grove of Himalayan Silver Birch. A fitting finale to this fascinating garden.

What could you use at home?

The massed blocks of planting that are so effective in this setting would fill many a garden on their own. The underplanting on the other hand is much more flexible and suited to smaller gardens. Bulbs are brilliant because they’re invisible after mid-spring when the leaves die down, and then they pop up again when you want them. None will really put on a show before January but then snowdrops, crocuses, little winter-flowering irises and maybe a few winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) will brighten late winter days.

Bergenia (elephant’s ears) isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but some of the best ones have bright red leaves in winter and then bright pink or white flowers from around March. Try ‘Admiral’ or ‘Claire Maxine’. Hebe can be difficult to grow in very cold or wet areas, but given a bit of shelter it might be in flower in winter, as one was in February at Anglesey Abbey. Again, if you have space for a tree and a suitable spot, try a small maple such as Acer griseum. The peeling bark glows red with the sun behind it.

RHS Hyde Hall

In Essex, the new winter garden at RHS Hyde Hall was opened in late 2018. It has some similarities to the other two, with a meandering path leading you through the beds, massed groups of cornus and different species of rubus positioned to catch the sun plus summer grasses left in their skeletal form through winter. But it has the sophisticated touches you’d expect of an RHS garden so that although it’s still in its infancy, it looks quite different to the other two.

For one thing, several huge living willow sculptures add a very modern twist – literally as the stems are tied together in groups and curved and bent into striking shapes. Straight away you want to come back in summer to see them in leaf! Large metal sculptures of leaves in varying stages of decay are placed at intervals. Curving tufts of Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ surround the Japanese cornelian cherry, Cornus officinalis with its display of yellow flowers on bare stems. Grasses are used more, including the poker straight Deschampsia cespitosa and fountain grass, pennisetum.  Scent didn’t seem as noticeable here as in the other gardens because there are no massed plantings of sarcococca, for instance, but there is daphne, edgworthia and winter honeysuckle so it’s definitely a feature and will presumably become more of one as the garden matures. Coloured stems are mixed – different types of cornus are planted together, with a layer of white, powdery bramble covering the ground in between.

What could you use at home?

This is tricky as the really memorable elements like the twisting living-willow sculpture and the large bed of mixed cornus and rubus stems would certainly be hard to accommodate alongside the washing line in your average back garden. Also, I can somehow never imagine planting brambles, no matter how fetching their white stems are in winter. But the variety in the range of plants is a lesson in itself. You don’t have to stick to the tried and tested. Why not grow something completely different? Rhododendron dauricum ‘Mid Winter’ caught my eye. It has small (for a rhododendron) purple flowers that open in late winter. Also Stachyurus ‘Rubriflorus’, with it’s catkin-like strings of flowers (pendent racemes to be technical). There are lots of great grasses to try, too. Deschampsia cespitosa is a beautiful grass all year round, and so narrow you could fit at least one in almost anywhere. It’s not unusual but Viburnum tinus is worth considering, too, even if you have seen it in too many car parks. Hardy and evergreen, it can be clipped and shaped to keep it from getting too big and the variety grown at Hyde Hall, ‘Little Bognor’ had lovely big clusters of flowers in February. It doesn’t seem to be available for sale in the UK, but another cultivar, ‘Lisarose’ has fantastic red buds and white flowers and is sold by Crocus (

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