BODNANT GARDEN, NORTH WALES

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“Our winter garden was designed by Troy Scott-Smith, and opened in 2013,” says Bodnant’s Head Gardener John Rippin. “Troy revitalised an old Victorian rockery that had become very overgrown. He cherry-picked the best ideas from other good winter gardens and created a more condensed, more intimate version here, which means there are lots of planting combinations for visitors to take away and replicate at home. 

“One idea we’ve used here is layering,” says John. “We aim to create a naturalistic community of plants using a tree, a mid-height shrub, a smaller shrub or perennial and then bulbs at ground level. This gives visual interest at different heights and helps the eye to move around.

“We also love to use contrasts of colour, shape and texture. So, one moment you’re dazzled by a bright and jazzy plant combination, such as golden bamboo Phyllostachys aureosulcata spectabilis with red Cornus alba ‘Sibiricia’ and the white ghost bramble Rubus cockburnianus, then you turn a corner and you’re looking at something far more subtle, such as a carpet of Cyclamen coum or snowdrops planted under a mahonia. 

“The best way to create layers is to start with your bigger structural plants such as conifers and Japanese maples. These add a real sculptural element, so we’ve planted ours on the highest point of the rockery, using white-barked Betula utilis jacquemontii and maples with bright stems, such as acer ‘Red Flamingo’. 

“Once the structure is built up you have your set piece colour schemes. Here it’s helpful to use variations on a theme – using the same plants with different partners to vary the colour effects. Snowdrops planted under the red stems of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ look completely different planted under the olive-green stems of Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’, but they’re equally effective. In a similar vein, we’ll use blue scillas and Iris reticulata below red-stemmed cornus, with cultivars such as ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ looking really good with red or white stems.”

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LOCATION
Bodnant Garden, Bodnant Road, Tal-y-cafn, Colwyn Bay LL28 5RE OPEN Daily except 24-26 December, 10am-4pm in winter. Adults £12, NT members free CONTACT 01492 650460; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden

ANGLESEY ABBEY, CAMBS

The birch grove at Anglesey Abbey

The birch grove at Anglesey Abbey

The world-famous winter walk at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire was one of the first of its kind in recent times, and now attracts some 400,000 visitors per year. “When it comes to creating a winter garden, working on a large scale certainly helps,” says Garden & Outdoor Manager Andrew Myson. “Our winter walk is a meandering path that winds between constantly changing views; in a smaller garden it’s more a case of placing plants for best impact.

“Our birch grove is one of the highlights (right). We use Himalayan birches Betula utilis jacquemontii, but you could use smaller multi-stem specimens to achieve a similar effect. 

“It’s important to consider the setting for your plants when planning. In our birch grove we have a backdrop
of yew hedging that helps to set off the white trunks perfectly, though you could use a dark wall or fence instead.

“One very striking plant that works well on a smaller scale is the twisted hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’. With careful placing it can be so intriguing to look at, especially when you plant attractive companion plants underneath for a splash of winter colour. 

“Choosing the right companions is key. We use a wide variety of plants – bergenia, cyclamen, pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’, Vinca minor, pachysandra, and the pink tulip ‘Little Beauty’. One of our successful combinations is Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’ planted around and through Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. This combination gives visual impact right through the winter months.”

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LOCATION Quy Road, Lode, Cambridge CB25 9EJ OPEN Daily except 24-26 December, 10am-4.30pm. Gardens £8.50, NT members free CONTACT 01223 810080; www.nationaltrust.org.uk

RHS GARDEN ROSEMOOR

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The stunning winter walk at RHS Garden Rosemoor in Devon is an excellent showcase for winter plants. “It’s all about striking a good balance,” says garden curator Jonathan Webster. “We use a mix of everything – colourful winter stems, trees with tactile bark and berries, evergreens and winter flowers for scent. In a small garden it’s important to create interest in all seasons, so your planting scheme works all year.

“We keep the National Plant Collection of stem cornus here at Rosemoor. We cut them back in early spring to encourage colourful new stems, and because they’re left as a knobbly stub it’s good to have them growing up through evergreens such as Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’. The red stems of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ look very dramatic growing through its gold-variegated leaves. 

“It’s also a good idea to position plants with colourful stems against
a glossy evergreen backdrop, to show off the outline and colour better. We use a wide range of evergreens in this role including Mahonia media ‘Lionel Fortescue’ and holly Ilex crenata.

“Conifers are another good choice for year-round structure. I really like the Japanese umbrella pine, Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Pygmy’; it’s a lovely small pillar shape with dark green foliage. Heathers help to jazz things up a bit; to soften the texture and add movement we use grasses such as Carex morrowii ‘Fisher’s Form’ and Stipa tenuissima. 

“Paths meander round the garden and we like to plant fragrant shrubs next to them. Hamamelis intermedia ‘Pallida’, Daphne bhloua ‘Jacqueline Postil’ and sarcococca are all really good, offering visitors a nice surprise.” 

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LOCATION Great Torrington, Devon EX38 8PH OPEN Daily except 25 December, 10am–5pm. Adults £11, RHS free CONTACT 01805 624067;

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RHS GARDEN HARLOW CARR

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For a perfect Winter Walk brimming with shining examples of the season’s best plants, look no further than RHS Garden Harlow Carr near Harrogate.

It’s one of the best gardens to visit for inspiration for your own winter plantings; every foot of border has a cunning combination of fiery dogwoods or glossy-barked trees underplanted with jewel-like winter bulbs and evergreen herbaceous perennials. These nifty ‘recipes for success’ can easily be recreated at home in a tiny flowerbed or even a container. 

The colours here are remarkable even in the depths of winter, whether it’s sunny or snowing. The dogwoods – letterbox-red Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, three-toned C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, lime green C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and more – are planted in large groups that form intense blocks of colour when seen from a distance. Closer to, you appreciate the shine and texture of their bark, which leaps out against the background of the black soil. 

Look out for clumps of white-stemmed ‘ghost’ bramble, Rubus thibetanus, which is one of the less commonly seen winter plants. Its scrambling and ranging habit makes it trickier to accommodate in smaller gardens, so it’s a plant that’s best appreciated in a larger-scale plot, rather than one to grow at home. 

The trees have brilliant bark too, from stands of single- and multi-stemmed silver birches, glossy red-barked Prunus serrula and a twisting corkscrew willow Salix babylonica pekinensis ‘Tortuosa’. There are also plenty of golden willows coppiced to a low stump so that they produce masses of long, whippy and colourful stems – a useful trick that keeps a willow compact enough to grow in a small garden. 

The trees are combined with contrasting evergreen perennials such as hellebores, pulmonaria and Euphorbia characias wulfenii, which adds impressive height to a border with its whorls of blue-green leaves topping succulent stems. As groundcover, Bergenia milessi ‘Overture’ is a small but beautiful elephant’s ears plant with waxy, ruby-red to rich-burgundy leaves that become more intense as temperatures drop. It’s one of the best bergenias you can grow. 

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LOCATION RHS Garden Harlow Carr, Crag Lane, Harrogate HG3 1QB  OPEN Daily except Christmas Day; Oct-Feb, 9.30am-4pm; Mar-Oct, 9.30am-6pm. Entry £12.10 inc Gift Aid CONTACT 01423 565418; www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/harlow-carr

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THE SIR HAROLD HILLIER GARDENS

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Fragrance can catch you by surprise in a winter garden, and The Sir Harold Hillier Garden in Hampshire has lots of aromatic delights in store. “Fragrance is quiet, subtle but effective,” says Head of Collections, David Jewell. “It’s nice to walk around and be interrupted by the scent of a nearby daphne. Go for ‘Jacqueline Postill’, D. bholua or Sarcococca confusa.

“In winter it’s inevitable that we look to birches for a focal point. In a small garden, Betula albosinensis is a pinky, coppery-red colour with a peeling bark. 

“One thing that’s an absoute delight in any garden is snowdrop Galanthus nivalis and Cyclamen coum planted under a deciduous tree or shrub. 

“The trick with using bold stem colours on a smaller scale is to go
for repetition – use three cornus on the left and three on the right and visually they’ll bounce off eachother. ‘Midwinter Fire’ can be planted at the far end of a garden to draw the eye, and ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’ is one
of the best. If in doubt, repeat!

“Conifers offer different shapes and outlines – you can use silver-blue Picea glauca albertiana ‘Conica’, which looks gorgeous covered in dew or frost, all year round. Or, go for balls and cones
of buxus. When the structure is laid bare these evergreen characters create the bones of the garden.

“But if you don’t have space for a tree, why not sink vertical railway sleepers into the ground and plant green and gold ivies at their base. These are great for delivering a strong vertical accent.”

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LOCATION Jermyns Lane, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 0QA OPEN Daily except 25–26 December, 10am-4pm. Adults £10.40 CONTACT 01794 369318; www.hants.gov.uk/thingstodo/hilliergardens