The idea that gardens could be beautiful in winter and that they could offer colour structure and interest at what is the bleakest time of year is a relatively new concept. Gardening used to be all about the flowers and once they started to fade in autumn that was it until the snowdrops would emerge in late winter. Gardens would be cut back, tidied up and left barren for several months.
Don’t be too tidy
Some gardeners may still adopt this approach, but there’s a benefit to being more relaxed with the secateurs, and that benefit is revealed when the temperature falls and frost forms, transforming the faded blooms, seed heads, stems and ornamental grasses into a magical world of glistening ice crystals.
Seed heads and skeletons
The New Perennial Movement, as it’s become known, which emerged in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in the latter part of the 20th century, played a major part in this changing attitude to winter gardens, with an approach that celebrated all stages of a plant’s life cycle, including the skeletal form once the flowers have finished blooming. Proponents of the New Perennial Movement, such as Piet Oudolf, favoured plants that didn’t flop or die back immediately after flowering, plants that held their structure and that had interesting forms beyond their blooms.
Climate change is also playing a part, as milder autumns mean perennials and annuals go on flowering for much longer than they once did, so gardeners are reluctant to chop everything back.
There’s also a growing interest in helping garden wildlife – leaving plants standing provides places for insects to hole up and seed heads for birds to feed on. Flocks of goldfinches descend on my garden in late winter, perching precariously on the stems of eupatorium and Verbena bonariensis to eat the seeds.
Before the idea that grasses and seed heads could provide winter beauty, gardeners relied on evergreens for winter interest. Hollies, ivy, box and yew, often clipped into tight shapes, meant a garden could still have definition, texture and structure, even when other plants had retreated underground.
In their prime
Gardens planted primarily to recognise plants that are at their best during the winter months have also become a growing trend. These feature trees with beautiful bark such as acers, birches, and cherries; shrubs with colourful stems such as dogwoods and brambles; plants with berries; and fragrant winter blooms such as witch hazels, edgeworthia and viburnums.
For a truly wonderful seasonal garden, a combination of all these types of plants means that your garden will always feel alive, partly because there will be plenty to admire and encourage you outdoors, even when it’s cold and grey. But it’ll also feel abundant and vibrant because birds will visit to perch, to feed, to shelter, and on sunny days when the temperature rises sufficiently to tempt bees to fly, a glimpse of them feeding on winter-flowering honeysuckle is a heartening sight.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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