I’d like to look at a subject that doesn’t get the attention it deserves: winter gardens.
When designing gardens there is a tendency to focus on how the garden will look in the spring and summer months – when people are outside using their green spaces as extended living areas – with the emphasis being on colour. However, we shouldn’t forget that in autumn and winter usually our principal view from the warmth of inside our living space is of our garden. And that we are also lucky enough to live in a climate where lunching outside throughout the cooler months is a distinct possibility.
So what plants can we incorporate into a design that not only look great in the active months but that also provide winter interest? The word architecture has to feature heavily, not in terms of hard materials but in use of plants.
One of the most important choices is grass. We rarely consider grass in a garden other than for the obvious lawn, but the so-called “ornamental grasses” are fantastic at this time of year as they provide architectural elements to the garden adding contrast and background texture.
In nature a high percentage of vegetative cover is grass. This is because this mainly herbaceous plant is very effective at eradicating competition from undesirable growth as it pushes through, bullying out even the toughest perennial weeds – so hard to get rid of – making it equally a great choice in the garden to keep maintenance low.
Most grasses are summer flowering and then proceed to hold their heads up all winter. Mix this with the dried seed heads of other architectural plants such as alliums, gaura, achillea, acanthus and even the lavenders and you can achieve a variety of tone and texture which when touched with frost can look truly spectacular.
On the larger specimens, obviously berries can give a splash of colour, and winter fruit such as the Kaki tree (otherwise known as the Persimmon or Sharon fruit tree) – whenever I see these bright orange fruit on the otherwise bare tree it always makes me think of a tree creating its own Christmas baubles! Trees that have what is known as exfoliating bark such as lagerstroemia, which has an array of amazingly beautiful warm colours that range from cream to warm beige to cinnamon and on to bright red, are sure to enhance any landscape.
So when designing grounds remember winter – the forgotten fourth season in the garden; seed heads, berries and fruits also attract birds throughout the winter to add a different sort of magnetism. Add the lower winter sun that backlights the golden ornamental grasses and the morning frosts and you can have a dramatic, warm effect that is every bit as charming as the Christmas cards that will soon be appearing through the letterbox!