I think this daffodil sums up English winters for me:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?