Looking at photos I took of autumn colour last year, compared to the same scene this year, I think that it’s got colder sooner, to lower temperatures, this year compared to last. There are also more berries on my hollies, never the heaviest cropping specimens, than in other years which, traditionally, signifies that a ‘hard winter’ is in prospect. Well, time will tell, but my masochistic side rather looks forward to a properly freezing winter—if only to ‘cleanse’ the garden of some of the overwintering pests and diseases.
Having said that, a very cold snap would not please me at the moment because, perversely, the striking, glaucous, toothed leaves of Melianthus major (the plant that smells of peanut butter if you bruise the leaves) come into their own around now. Being South African in origin it is, like the various bulbous species hailing from that part of the globe, programmed to time its growth spurt and flowering during our autumn and into winter.
Melianthus major is a bit late to that party, compared to the autumn flowering of its bulbous compatriots, such as Nerines and Crinums. Established plants produce their weird, mahogany hued, inflorescences only around now. Given that they are mostly grown for their architectural leaves, the flowers are a bonus especially because they look impossibly tropical to be appearing at this particular time of year.
They need to be planted in a sheltered spot, less because of the cold, they seem almost hardy in this part of the country, but more due to how annoying it is to have their grey-green foliage shredded by strong winds or ‘burnt’ by an icy blast. On the question of hardiness; there have been years when my established plants seem to have practically disappeared – only for a buried stem, often where it’s forced itself into a crack or crevice, to burst back into life and send up new growth where none was apparent before.
Also, they are adept at ‘layering’ themselves, so that new plants can often be started where old stems spontaneously root as they rest on the soil surface. The old woody stems can spread-eagle to the point where the plant’s architectural value is diluted by too much louche sprawling. To reinvigorate an ancient specimen, it’s a simple case of cutting off the oldest stems, especially those that flowered in the winter, to promote the production of new growth with lovely, fresh, toothy leaves.
Evergreen plants are an important part of the garden and winter is when they come into their own. To ring the changes why not include some variegated evergreens which will really shine during the dull winter months? It’s popular, but rather obtuse, to frown upon variegation. “Variety is the spice of life”, and all that, so to exclude variegation, from your gardening palette, is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
I suppose, during the flower filled months of the year, you might not want too much fancy foliage competing with the blooms. However, in the winter months, the relative dearth of pretty flowers means that the novelty of variegated leaves makes up for the paucity of blooms and can therefore be ‘forgiven’. I have a small-leaved, green and white, variegated ivy which began life as an escapee from a winter bedding scheme. I hardly notice it in the summer but, now its bedfellows are denuded, it’s a very welcome alternative to having bare soil. In fact, evergreen groundcover plants are a must in the winter as without them a lot more soil would be exposed to the harsh glare of scrutiny.
To get even more value out of evergreens, in the winter garden, you can 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 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 (boundary, windbreak, backdrop etc.) creates a ‘hedge’ rather than a ‘topiary specimen’.
More abstract shapes, or single specimens specifically shaped, are what we generally regard as topiary. My old favourite, yew, lends itself superbly to all types of ‘topiarising’ due to its dense growth habit, small evergreen ‘needles’ and the ability to sprout afresh even from the oldest wood.
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.
Ready made topiary specimens are readily available from garden centres, those big D-I-Y chain stores and various ‘online’ suppliers. They can be quite pricey, due to the time it takes to grow them to a decent size, so, if you’re looking to buy a gardener a generous Christmas present, maybe some instant topiary would fit the bill?
For me it’s impossible to think about topiary without thinking of how obsessive the Japanese are about this gardening Art. By pure chance, I honestly didn’t plan this, this also links nicely back to how I started the article…
Years ago, I invested in a lot of plants, Melianthus major being one of them, from a nursery called ‘Architectural Plants’. Recently, while attending a garden talk, I learnt that a certain Jake Hobson worked there at around the same time.
The link is; he went on to set up a company, on the Dorset / Wiltshire border, that has become the byword for all things Japanese, precision gardening tools and topiary maintenance : ‘Niwaki’.
What a small world this funny business we call horticulture is!
Compliments of the season to you, Dear Reader.