A Seasonal Affair

In March’s ‘The Opportunist’ we unveiled plans for the development of a new Winter Garden focused around ten West Himalayan birch trees planted in the spring of this year. Following a successful summer in the ground those trees have now begun to establish, and the autumn which followed presented yet another window in which to develop further structural planting. Box plants of different shapes and sizes now surround several of the birch creating a flat, evergreen foil for their creamy-white bark. As these box plants mature they will be clipped into informal, undulating shapes, of no deliberately uniform description.

Students from Birmingham Metropolitan College help to plant box plants in the Winter Garden, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Students from Birmingham Metropolitan College help to plant box plants in the Winter Garden

Like the nebulous box plants at its heart, the appeal of this new Winter Garden lies in the freedom it acquires absent a historical precedent. Formerly Edwardian pastureland with little aesthetic value, the ‘Old Meadow’ area of the garden has been remade countless times since. Now a burgeoning Winter Garden the only tradition to which it must adhere is this habit of constant reinvention. Many of the more historically significant areas of the garden were influenced by the writing of Arts and Crafts designer Gertrude Jekyll.  Planning a more contemporary area of the garden means that the Winterbourne team has also been free to seek inspiration from those who followed in her wake.

Much of this inspiration has been derived from the work of Graham Stuart Thomas, author of ‘Colour in the Winter Garden’, a touchstone on the subject as relevant today as it was when it was first written over half a century ago.  Thomas’ philosophy emerged at a time when what he called ‘new gardening’ ideas first began to take hold, a broad term used to describe a style of planting which focussed more on the structural layers of practical planting schemes. Motivated in part by the need for labour saving devices in the aftermath of the Second World War, Thomas and others like him promoted the combination of low-maintenance shrubs and ground cover plants together with the herbaceous perennials given almost idolatrous status a generation before.

Watering newly planted box plants in the Winter Garden, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Watering newly planted box plants in the Winter Garden

“Unlike many of our popular summer flowers upturned to the sun, the flowers of winter are frequently nodding, thus sheltering their vital parts from damage by the weather. This gives them a special appeal to me. But it is not only the flowers themselves that I write about; with them are all the multitudinous shapes and shades of green or burnished leaves, some decorated with white or yellow, and the green, brown, red and orange twigs of shrubs and trees, and the brilliant berries.” Graham Stuart Thomas, Colour in the Winter Garden, 1957

In this vein, the colour themed herbaceous borders popularised by Arts and Crafts design were augmented further by the inclusion of flowering shrubs and weed-smothering understory plants designed to give pleasure and utility all year round. Naturally, this renewed focus on extending seasons of interest beyond an explosive summer display had much to offer those who wished to plant for colour in the winter. Fortuitously, the ‘new gardening’ style lends itself particularly well to the presentation of late season stars. Nowhere is the structure and form of evergreen shrubs of greater value than beneath the stark canopy of deciduous trees in winter, whilst early bulbs, such as snowdrops, prove even more grateful for their presence, sheltering delicate blooms from frost and rain in the shadow of their limbs.

Part of the planting plan for the new Winter Garden, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Part of the planting plan for the new Winter Garden

Part of the ‘Old Meadow’ area which we ultimately hope to transform into the Winter Garden already contains a small double-sided border filled with plants of winter interest. As well as planting box plants, this autumn also saw a process of rationalisation begin. Many of the shrubs, such as the golden cornelian cherry (Cornus mas ‘Aurea’), which had outgrown their allotted space, were removed to make way for more appropriate planting in the spring. Here, the insight of Thomas has proved invaluable when selecting tried and tested shrubs to thrive in our conditions. Much of the ‘Old Meadow’ area is sheltered from the elements, enclosed on three sides by hedging and an ancillary building on the fourth, meaning that a greater emphasis has been given to those plants which are highly scented or require a position free from wind and rapid fluctuations in temperature in order to survive.

Two plants in particular have been chosen to maximise the benefits of such a sheltered site. The box-leaf azara (Azara microphylla) and the weeping sage (Buddleja auriculata) both bear fragrant flowers partly concealed beneath evergreen foliage in late autumn and early winter. Each hails from warmer climes, Chile and South Africa respectively. It is hoped that the shelter of our new Winter Garden will not only encourage them to flower profusely but also allow their scent to linger free from the effects of any prevailing wind. The azara will be planted behind three of our birch trees where its dark evergreen tones will form an effective backdrop against which to view other more vibrant colours, whilst the weeping sage will be planted nearby, a little further forward in the border, where its more striking flowers can be properly appreciated.

Buddleja auriculata, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Buddleja auriculata

“I can think of no more rewarding planting than a great collection of these evergreens and flowering shrubs for winter, mixed with bulbs and hardy plants. I would arrange my planting so that my vantage-points were towards the east, north, and west for in winter especially we need the sunlight to strike upon the plants and light them for our eyes.” Graham Stuart Thomas, Colour in the Winter Garden, 1957

Alongside these potentially temperamental exotics must be grown winter stalwarts upon whom it can be relied to provide a spectacular display year after year regardless of the tribulations of weather. Any such deliberation will inevitably lead to the selection of a mahonia, the hardiest and most accommodating of all winter flowering shrubs. Their long, pinnate leaves are worthy of inclusion alone but it is the exuberance of their winter-long yellow flowers which makes them absolutely indispensible. Semi-woodlanders at heart, most mahonias will grow happily in cold, shady positions, even beneath trees tolerating drier soils. Some of the best are hybrids between M. japonica and M. lomariifolia, and three of these have been chosen to create dramatic groupings on alternate sides of the border: M. ‘Lionel Fortescue’, M. ‘Charity’, and M. ‘Winter Sun’. All three begin flowering in succession ensuring that the Winter Garden will never be without flower from November to March.

Mahonia x media 'Lionel Fortescue', Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’

The danger of such a merit-based selection of winter flowering shrubs is that those less tangible aspects of a plants repertoire are often overlooked. Perhaps the true role of any Winter Garden is not to group together plants which flower during the shortest, darkest days of the year, but to crystallise all of those elements of the garden which appear most beautiful in nature’s most beguiling season. To ignore the value of a faded seed head, the varied tones of winter bark, or the ethereal play of light on frost, would be to ignore that which enchants the entire landscape in winter without need for care or thought. As the Winter Garden expands further into the ‘Old Meadow’, year upon year, more room will be made to accommodate those plants whose modest contribution belies a greater charm.

The area currently occupied by the ‘Mediterranean Border’, being that which gets the most sun, will eventually become home to many of the ornamental grasses which retain their form in soft shades of straw until they are cut back in March or April. Here they will be paired with larger winter flowering shrubs, such as the golden cornelian cherry removed from the narrower, existing border, which will then be allowed to mature into the larger space. Elsewhere, peak season perennials, such as Sedum and Phlomis, will be introduced providing a summer and a winter display as their spent flowers dry and remain to catch the frost, whilst dogwoods will be moved into a central island bed, circumvented by a winding path, where they will be displayed to their best advantage, with low winter sun shining through their coloured stems.

Miscanthus in winter, the Monocot Border, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Miscanthus in winter, the Monocot Border

“The inexhaustible joy of gardening is that no two plots need be the same, nor, in my experience, are they ever alike. Even if the same plants are grown the owners’ tastes will dictate a different arrangement. But it does often occur to me how much more enjoyable the views from the windows might be if we concentrated our attentions on plants rather than on flowers.” Graham Stuart Thomas, Colour in the Winter Garden, 1957

Of course, the relative merits of these plants and their many uses were never really lost on Thomas’ Arts and Crafts predecessors. Thomas was invited to Jekyll’s home, Munstead Wood, on a September’s day in 1931, a year before her death, and was encouraged to walk the grounds before returning to the house for tea. And so he wandered: ‘through the borders and doorways, up into the wooded area with glimpses back, here and there, of the already mellow gabled house and its tall chimney, dreaming away in its wooded glen.’ Thomas later remarked upon the ‘solidity’ of her planting schemes. Although these aspects were often ignored in her own writing, which was dominated by pictorial theories on the use of colour, Jekyll’s borders were actually bolstered by the use of shrubs and ground covering perennials both planted in large domineering groups.

This well publicised meeting and its apparent influence on his subsequent career, have led some to criticise Thomas, if only gently, for not doing more to disrupt the ‘good taste’ of garden-owners well versed in the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. So pervasive was Jekyll’s influence on British gardening throughout the 20th century that any attempt to depart from her principles often represents only a subtle deviation at best. It seems then that the most important lesson to be gleaned from ‘Colour in the Winter Garden’ is about good plant husbandry and not revolutionary horticultural trends. The right plant, in the right place, never goes out of fashion.

Be a part of it… Click here to find out more about how you can celebrate a special occasion or remember a loved one by dedicating one of the Winter Garden’s West Himalayan birch trees in memoriam at Winterbourne.


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13 thoughts on “A Seasonal Affair

  1. I look forward to visiting the new winter plantings on our next visit. I love the Buddleja you are planting B. auriculata and so much wish we could grow it here in South Shropshire but with most winters seeing -10 to -15 and many seeing -20 we really don’t wish to risk it. Our greenhouse is already full of Salvias, Aeoniums etc. Really enjoyed this post thanks.

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    1. Hello Malcolm. Glad you enjoyed the read. The Buddleja is a bit of a risky experiment even here – but its fun to give it a go! There is one area of the Winter Garden which is yet to be touched by frost at all this year. We’re hoping that planting it here next spring with lots of added drainage will be enough to see it establish. Fingers crossed!

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  2. With each new post that arrives in my inbox, I desire more and more to visit Winterbourne. As a mostly winter gardener in North Carolina, I’m especially interested to see the new Winter Garden as it unfolds. Keep up the beautiful work in the garden and in the words of your blog.

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    1. Hello Cheryl. It’s lovely to hear that we have inspired you to visit. You will be most welcome of course! In the meantime further posts will follow as the Winter Garden develops again in subsequent years. This winter is a crucial time as we asses further what is already present within that area and how it performs. The odd thing will no doubt pop up and surprise us!

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