When winter has edited the garden down to its bare bones it affords you the opportunity to revel in details which are easily missed within the fully furnished garden. Grey-green euphorbias, of which there are many, may be blooming in the summer months but their role in the winter garden is to provide a satisfying glaucous foil against the darker evergreens or bare soil. Their ‘softer’ foliage is a welcome contrast to the ‘tougher’ nature of the evergreen tree and shrub leaves.
The evergreen foliage of Iris unguicularis, formerly Iris stylosa, is the usual strap-like spray of leaves common in the iris family. These leaves are rather large, often untidy, which means that the delicate, lilac-hued, blooms may come and go almost unnoticed. If grown in a very sheltered spot, such as in gravel at the base of a south facing wall, they can throw up the occasional bloom as early as December. These early flowers have all the joy of spring about them and so precious, at this time of year, that they are worth picking and bringing indoors—a single stem vase is useful for this purpose (and makes a great Christmas present too!).
Some shrubs and trees are grown for their brightly coloured stems in winter; the dogwoods are hard to beat in this capacity. In a similar vein there is a trick, which I first saw in Rosemary Verey’s garden, which relies on the brightly coloured stems of ‘The Red-twigged Lime’ (Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’). This lime, when planted as a hedge, is deliberately cut relatively hard back, early on in the year, to encourage a good length of regrowth. When the leaves fall this flush of new twigs is revealed as a bright, practically luminous, orange-red ‘fringe’, most prominent along the hedge-top. Backlit by the low winter sun this horticultural trickery is as good as it gets and has seared such a strong image onto my memory that it can still be pictured vividly despite the intervening quarter of a century.
Another brain-seared memory is exiting the evergreen tunnel, in the garden of ‘Sutton Place’, to be confronted by the full majesty of Ben Nicholson’s ‘Wall’, floating above the ground despite its huge mass. Not many gardens could house such a splendid piece of art but it does illustrate the importance of inanimate focal points amongst all the living elements; which really come into their own in the winter scene. Stone or simulated stone, there’s nothing wrong with a moss encrusted concrete urn / birdbath / sundial, is an affordable alternative to your classic Ben Nicholson / Henry Moore artwork.
Variegated foliage can sometimes be ‘frowned upon’ by the horticultural taste police but the brightness of a boldly variegated leaf goes a long way to lifting the dullness of a winter’s day. Those traditional Christmas constituents, holly and ivy, both contain some excellent variegated forms. A trip to a well stocked garden centre should furnish you with anything from ‘green splashed yellow’ leaves, of the ivy Hedera colchica ‘Sulphur Heart’, to the ‘marbled grey and bordered creamy-white’ leaves of the holly Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Queen’, with every other combination, on every size and shape of leaf, in between.
Another way of adding excitement to evergreens, and therefore to the winter garden, is to clip them into all sorts of intriguing shapes; topiary. In its simplest form it could be argued that a hedge is really just a very geometric and practical form of topiary. You are, after all, clipping and trimming a tree or shrub so that it stays in a particular shape which is anything but natural. The fact that it also performs a function, be it boundary or windbreak, is the defining feature which makes this topiary specifically a hedge.
A garden, full to bursting with herbaceous plants in the summer, can have a second life in the winter if the beds and borders contain cones, pyramids, balls, or any other shape, of clipped evergreens. Repeating the same shape, at regular intervals, lends a formal ‘backbone’ to the garden. Using a variety of ‘mad’ shapes, in seemingly random formation, will lend an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality which will be masked in the summer only to be fully revealed, in the darkest days of winter, when the herbaceous players have left the stage.
Ready made topiary specimens can be quite pricey, due to the time it takes to grow them to a decent size, so, if you’re stuck for a generous Christmas present, maybe some instant topiary would fit the bill? Being evergreen it’s best to wait until the spring to plant them out into the garden. If you can’t stretch to buying the finished article you can always start training your own using container grown specimens of box, yew or, as an alternative conifer, Thuya.
You’ll have noticed that I’ve neatly avoided practical gardening tips this month. December’s tasks are a continuation of last month’s, “whenever weather conditions are favourable”, and, if the weather is less good, there’s nothing that can’t wait for a nice sunny day.
Finally; if you’re stuck for a suitable ‘Man Gift’ this Christmas, may I suggest you treat your fella to a good service? Of course I mean a lawnmower (other petrol power tools would do) service! It’s something that often goes overlooked and a properly serviced motor mower will make the first lawn cut of spring something to look forward to rather than a chore to fear. I’m sure the local garden machinery firms would be happy to furnish you with some sort of “your mower is booked for a service” token if you went in before 25th December. On that note I’ll leave you all to have Merry little Christmases and bountiful New Years.