Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire

I think this daffodil sums up English winters for me:

Narcissus 'First Hope' at Hillier Gardens

Early flowering Narcissus ‘First Hope’ at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

They are all about hope. Hope that they just hurry up and end as quickly as possible. Hope that begins around mid November, just before winter actually starts.

Acer griseum peeling bark at Hiller Gardens

Acer griseum peeling bark at Hillier Gardens

It turns out cold winters do not conform to the romantic notion of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. I so like the idea of seasons but the reality is very different. Frankly, I found that two months of a very chilly 16 or 17 degrees in Sydney were quite sufficient to have me pleading for spring to arrive asap. A week of it being dark at 3.30pm is almost enough to finish me off.

Snowdrops at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

Snowdrops at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

But, with snowdrops appearing and Narcissus ‘First Hope’ in full bloom, it does feel there is (quite literally) light at the end of the tunnel. And a visit to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens on Sunday was definitely a helpful distraction.

White birch trunks and assorted Cornus stems bring high impact in the Hillier Winter Garden

White birch trunks and assorted Cornus and Salix stems bring high impact to the Hillier Winter Garden

I was clearly meant to visit the Hillier Gardens. It was my birthday on Sunday and after eight glorious, warm birthdays eating alfresco in little summer dresses, this year was a little hard to face up to. I’d really struggled to get excited about my birthday, or indeed make any plans at all. But as 41-and-a-lot-year-olds find themselves doing, I was reading ‘The Garden’ magazine in bed on Saturday night and the one page I read before falling asleep mentioned a four acre winter garden. A four acre winter garden that offered free entry to RHS members, no less. At last I had a plan for the following day!

A hot chocolate in the cafe was in order on our return from the gardens

A hot chocolate in the cafe was in order on such a chilly day, looking out over these Cornus with attractive gradation of colour along their stems

The truth is, I’ve never really liked ‘winter gardens’. Sitting in the Australian sun reading about them in ‘The Garden’ each year, I’ve always thought they smacked of desperation. Of gathering anything and everything that had any vague colour in a vain attempt to try and make something out of nothing. They always looked generally dreary, the pops of colours too bright, jarring in the grey atmosphere. And they didn’t seem to gel together as groups of plants; everything looked far too forced. Yet I really liked the Hillier Winter Garden. I think it worked on three levels:

1. Fullness
Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Tom Thumb', Cornus alba 'Sibirica' and Carex Morrowii 'Fisher's Form'

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and Carex morrowii ‘Fisher’s Form’

To me, an ornamental garden always looks a little sad if it has large expanses of bare soil. Fullness symbolises life and vitality: plants that are thriving and happy and a cohesive, complex eco-system. In the UK, by definition, a winter garden needs to be full of evergreens, but frost hardy evergreens tend to be very static, small-leaved and overwhelmingly that dull, slightly murky, uninspiring green.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Barmstedt Gold'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Barmstedt Gold’: such an intriguingly fascinating plant

Most gardeners don’t want a whole area of that for the full year, so they resort to leaving gaps where perennials can pop up in summer. The result is a compromised winter garden followed by a compromised summer garden. However, the Hillier Winter Garden doesn’t try to be anything other than a winter garden and that’s why it works so well. It has that generosity of abundance that shines out at a time when so many of our green spaces are bare.

2. Texture
Mahonia aquifolium 'Orange Flame'

Mahonia aquifolium ‘Orange Flame’: so much texture on so many levels

It amazed me how much I noticed textures in this garden. Leaves seemingly throwing their veins into relief and bark of so many shades, peeling in delicious layers. In a more subdued environment, the detail seems much more noticeable and of much higher value.

3. Colour
Hamamelis x intermedia 'Sunburst' add height and colour to black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens')

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Sunburst’ adds height and colour above black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’)

There is no question, winter gardens are all about colour. And colour is what makes a garden for me. Even if a garden is purely green, it’s still all about colour; just the colour green, in this instance. Colour is the very first thing I notice as I step into a garden and is quite possibly the single characteristic that has most impact on my emotional response to it (I’ll have better judgement on this once I’ve read the five books I got out of the RHS library this afternoon!).

I loved this sweeping river of pink Erica at the Hillier Gardens

I loved this sweeping river of muted pink Erica in the Hillier Gardens

I do prefer more subtly, rather than extreme contrasts of colour, but it does warm the soul at this time of year to have some ‘electricity’ thrown in. My favourite parts of the Hillier Garden were, however, scenes that had a strong connection with nature, just as I find with summer gardens.

Hillier Pinetum Sculpture Trail: giant cones made from willow

Hillier Pinetum Sculpture Trail: I’m not always big on garden sculpture but felt this giant cone had a good connection to its surroundings, being created using natural materials (willow) and set amongst large conifer trees (just the precise placing that perhaps leaves something to be desired?)

So am I a winter garden convert?

I think I am, in the sense that I can now see they work in the right place. Looking at photos on a hot summer’s day in Sydney, no. But on a cold February day in Hampshire, absolutely.

Cyclamen coum and snowdrops are the perfect carpet beneath a deciduous tree

Cyclamen coum and snowdrops are the perfect carpet beneath a deciduous tree

Will I be making one myself?

I think probably not. I certainly wouldn’t sacrifice summer garden space for one, nor make a compromised neither-one-nor-the-other garden.

It's not often you see super healthy wollemi pines and even less so ones full of cones

It’s not often you see super healthy wollemi pines and even less so ones full of cones; I was pretty excited to find a number of such specimens in this garden

But in a big garden?

I’m still not sure I’d dedicate the time, resources and effort to make something that’s very pleasant to spend an hour or so in once a year, but really isn’t somewhere you want to dwell regularly when it’s so just cold.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) with beads of rain

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) with beads of rain

Admittedly, the winter season is at least as long as the summer one, so perhaps the idea will grow on me over time. What are your thoughts? In a cold climate, would you create a dedicated winter garden?

As long as you wrap up warm, the Winter Garden brightens your day even when it's grey outside

As long as you wrap up warm, the Winter Garden brightens your day, even under the greyest of skies

14 thoughts on “Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire

  1. Pat Webster says:

    Talk of winter gardens always leaves me laughing. In my Quebec location, winter means snow high enough to cover shrubs that others praise for the colour. What works for me are outlines of tree trunks and snow and ice against bright winter-blue skies.

    • jannaschreier says:

      That’s lovely, Pat!! Made me chuckle, too. Shows how narrow-minded I am to have not even thought about that as I wrote this. I think I’m only ever destined for locations closer to the equator than the UK. Mind you, all that talk of bright winter-blue skies and Quebec sounds a whole lot more appealing than ‘mild’ London!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, gosh. Not a gardening day then. Although I guess it’s a watering day. Everything here stays in a permanently soggy state from October through to April; what a funny world we live in!

      • Deirdre says:

        We have had very few gardening days this summer. It is actually quite disheartening as I miss being able to potter in my garden. It’s shaping up to be our hottest summer on record. Can’t easily imagine those soggy months but they sound appealing to me right now!

        • jannaschreier says:

          Despite having lived in both countries for many years, I still can’t really believe that the other continues whilst I am elsewhere. It’s like a parallel universe, somehow. Impossible to imagine disliking cold when it’s too hot and impossible to imagine disliking hot when it’s too cold. We were very lucky with our six years with you though – we arrived in Canberra in the summer of 2009/10, the first after the long drought, and left just before this oppressively hot one. I have memories of the whole six years being just perfect!!

  2. Adriana says:

    What an interesting gardening world we live in Janna! I dread summer, not summer in general, but those years where the temperatures seem to burn the garden up – I sympathise with Deirdre. This year we have been lucky here in southern Victoria. Thank goodness. I love this winter garden and I would rug up to see it – most definitely. It would lift your winter spirits and make all things seem possible; Allow you to enjoy even the bleakest of English winter days. I love the witch hazel, the red stems of the winter cornus and what’s not to love about all those tiny winter blooms? Glad you could see this lovely garden and share it with us Janna – as we breathe a sigh of relief that we are on the last legs of summer and the garden has survived. Maybe it is a funny world – as well as an perpetually surprising and interesting one.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Wouldn’t it be boring if it were the same everywhere? I do wonder how homogenised the world may become with globalisation, but I’m glad that the ‘local’ concept also seems to be gaining strength. I’m all for strong geographical identities…I’m writing a dissertation on it, after all! Varying climates will always give us some contrast…until we work out how to control those too! I’m glad your garden has held up well this summer. I do remember those days of watering, watering, watering and wondering why I hadn’t just planted more appropriate species!

  3. rusty duck says:

    I’m not sure I would have a winter garden. Even with a fair amount of space I still couldn’t bear to have an area that did nothing in summer. What I am aiming for is a series of vignettes, like ‘capsule’ winter gardens, which shine out of the gloom and force me to go outside and look. I want some of those dogwoods (stopping short of looking like a roundabout) and saw a cracker at Rosemoor this week then forgot to go back and get it. This weekend. And whilst I’m at it, definitely the Ophipogon to go under a witch hazel.
    But what I really need is to move to Australia. Still working on Mike..
    A belated Happy Birthday x

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh dear, we are both so gloomy about the English gloom! Once you’ve experienced ‘the other side’ it’s hard to go back. But read the other comments here and feel better. It really is so, so hard keeping a garden in those temperatures. You spend literally 1-2 hours every single day just keeping (most) things alive without actually moving anything forward. You’ve probably guessed that the sun is streaming in through my window this morning so London feels a wonderful place. Just so fickle! Look forward to seeing your Cornus…love the idea of shining capsules!

  4. Suzanne says:

    A winter garden! You keep challenging my very narrow concepts of gardening. It is very beautiful and I can imagine that there would be a certain appeal when most things in winter are asleep.
    But would I plant a seasonal garden of any kind; not here in my little corner of the world. We have colour for 12 months of the year and while we don’t get the marked seasonal changes there is still a lovely ebb and flow of flower/colour highlights. The down side, as you know, is that there is never any time off from gardening. However, Perth has just had an incredibly WET couple of days and absolutely nothing needs a drink, not even my Australia Day new babies.
    You may be happy to have missed Sydney’s summer this year. It has been horrendous. I hope it’s settled down by the time I fly over in March.

    • jannaschreier says:

      It’s such fun to think about different gardens around the world and then consider if there is anything interesting to take from them for our own little patch. I learnt so much from our trip to South Africa, although I think there was even more I took from the natural vegetation than from the gardens. I’m going to be very happy to get back to my South Africa memories on the blog this week…all this talk of winter gardens is making me chilly! Glad to hear you’ve had good rain. You are so in tune with your garden you get to enjoy all the seasonal changes to an even greater extent than most would in the most changeable of climates!

  5. James Golden says:

    I don’t know that I’ll even get to Hillier Gardens in winter but I enjoyed the color. I have just the place for more of this. Salix does well in my heavy clay, but the various Cornus don’t seem to thrive. This post makes me want to try again.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’m so glad the Hillier Gardens sparked some inspiration for your own. I’m determined to come and visit your garden one day and it sounds like whatever the season, it will be a wonderful place to absorb. Please don’t stop opening it to the public before I get there! Thanks for your comment.

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