Garden visiting has become a year-round activity. A brisk walk on a chilly day, rounded off with a mug of hot chocolate makes for the perfect winter pastime. National Trust, RHS and many other open gardens and parks are places to seek inspiration for your own winter plot. Their vistas might be extensive and their borders vast, but they’re packed with take-home ideas.
In bygone times, winter gardens were the preserve of the very wealthy. “Designers such as Humphry Repton included proper winter gardens in his designs,” says garden historian Advolly Richmond. “But these were planted only for the enjoyment of the household and their guests. Many fine houses would rely on conservatories filled with exotics to provide winter interest.”
In more recent times, the National Trust has played a significant role in restoring these great gardens and expanding their seasonal appeal. In the 1950s, Graham Stuart Thomas is credited as creating the first formal winter garden at Polesdon Lacey in Surrey. Yet the idea was slow to take off: it was many decades later that Richard Ayres created his celebrated winter walk at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge (1998), and Troy Scott-Smith planted the breath-taking winter garden at Bodnant in Wales (2012).
“Winter gardens used to be pretty much a minority interest in Britain,” says garden writer Noel Kingsbury. “Apart from coloured willow stems, they’re rather orientated towards the end of winter with snowdrops and hellebores. The early winter period was essentially written-off until the 1990s when Piet Oudolf’s grass and perennial borders began to make an impact, effectively inventing a whole new garden ‘look’ for early to mid-winter.”
On a more intimate scale, up to 100 National Garden Scheme gardens regularly celebrate winter with a Snowdrop Festival in January or February, raising thousands of pounds for nursing charities in the process. The RHS, too has a packed winter entertainment programme featuring colourful trees and shrubs, floriferous seasonal plantings, sculpture trails, night lights, lasers and snowdrop weekends.
All our winter gardens have something to inspire, and when the sun shines, there’s no better excuse to stroll outside!
1 Don’t trim back summer seedheads Meadow-style planting provides interest that lasts right into autumn and winter, with a shimmering display of seedheads and cobweb-clad plant silhouettes. So, hold off cutting back faded plants until spring and they’ll provide nesting material and seeds for visiting birds to feast on. Plants such as astrantias, echinacea, ornamental grasses and baptisias can be left standing long after their flowers fade to provide a dramatic winter display while attracting wildlife at the same time. Once spent flower stems start to flop, clear them away to the compost heap. Where to see them: Pensthorpe Natural Park, Pensthorpe Rd, Fakenham NR21 0LN
2 Let colourful stems shine The blood-red stems of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and orange-red stems of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ light up a garden in an instant. Plant these reliable shrubs in a sunny spot or by a sunlit pond, so that in winter their stems catch the low sunlight or create a dazzling reflection. To keep the colours strong, prune hard in March to encourage a fresh crop of stems. Add in the white stems of Rubus cockburnianus and the bark of the prunus or silver birch and you’ll have all the winter drama you need. Where to see them: Anglesey Abbey, Quy Road, Lode, Cambridge CB25 9EJ
3 Use lots of glossy evergreens A winter garden without conifers? Unthinkable! Trained and clipped specimens keep a garden looking sharp and stylish all year. Topped with a light dusting of snow, a conifer that seemed unremarkable in summer suddenly becomes the icing on the cake. Where to see them: RHS Garden Harlow Carr, Crag Lane, Beckwithshaw, Harrogate HG3 1QB
4 Turn heads with fragrance To pull in scarce winter pollinators, flowers are often much more fragrant at this time of year. When planted in the right place, their perfume can stop us in our tracks. Take care to position your chosen fragrant shrub where you can lean in to enjoy its perfume. Try Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, hamamelis, Sarcococca confusa, Chimonanthus praecox or Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’. They’re slow growing but worth the wait. Where to smell them: RHS Garden Wisley, Wisley Lane, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB
5 Banish bare soil beautifully Low-growing plants add a tapestry of colour to a winter garden. Choose from winter-flowering heathers, dainty cyclamen and eranthis for a stunning glossy carpet over time. Hepaticas are a less obvious choice that create a spreading carpet of dainty blue flowers Feb-Mar, with marbled, kidney-shaped leaves in part shade. Where to see it: Sir Harold Hillier Garden, Jermyn’s Lane, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 0QA
6 Choose a tree for texture Once they’ve shed their summer foliage, deciduous trees offer a shapely silhouette that helps to anchor any planting scheme. For maximum winter appeal, look for one with additional bark interest. Good choices for a small garden include the bright white trunk of Betula albosinensis ‘Fascination’ and the polished sheen of Prunus serrula. These trees are popular because their root spread isn’t excessive, and a wide variety of shade-tolerant plants can thrive in their light, dappled shade.
Where to see it: Bodnant Garden, Bodnant Road, Tal-y-cafn, Colwyn Bay LL28 5RE, Wales
7 Use statues for personality and humour Permanent features such as benches, walls and garden statues are vital to a winter scene. With many plants now dormant, manmade treasures ensure the personality of a plot remains. Paths, walls and obelisks help guide your eye around the space, while small garden statues can add drama or even humour in the winter months. It’s best to position benches and statues in winter so you can see how they’ll contribute to the garden in its ‘naked’ months. If they work well in winter, they’re bound to look spectacular in summer!
Where to see statues: Trentham Gardens, Stone Road, Trentham, Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire ST4 8JG
8 Cultivate a carpet of snowdrops There’s no denying that the snowdrop is the most highly praised of all winter- flowering plants. They might take years to create a carpet, but they can be planted in pots or among other winter-flowering perennials such as hellebores, cyclamen and eranthis (winter aconites). A walk around a specialist snowdrop garden is just the place to spot the subtle differences between the many cultivars. If inspired to start your own collection, plant them in a raised bed so you can look into the flowers without getting down on bended knee.
Where to see them: Dunham Massey, Wood House lane, Altrincham, Cheshire WA14 4SJ
9 Pot up winter treasures Even in a really tiny garden, containers are a quick way to add winter drama. Choose a pot that’s handsome and frostproof that will cope with all weathers, adding pot feet and holes for good drainage. A central shrub such as a small skimmia, coupled with an ornamental grass, trailing ivy and a few cyclamen, will hold the interest for months. Underplant them with dwarf narcissus and crocus and the display will leap into spring with ease.
Where to see winter pots: RHS Garden Hyde Hall, Creephedge Lane, Chelmsford, Essex CM3 8ET
10 Create an insect hotel A homemade insect hotel provides shelter for aphid-eating lacewings and ladybirds over the colder months. Use twigs, canes, cones, dry leaves, moss, pebbles and old logs for the perfect resting place. Choose a quiet spot in the corner of your garden and wait for your guests to arrive. Where to see one: RHS Garden Rosemoor, Torrington, Devon