We set off for Harrogate on a whim, inspired by the weather forecast, and booked into a hotel within walking distance from the RHS’s most northerly garden, Harlow Carr, a favourite haunt. The idea was to wake up next morning to find an artistic covering of snow or a hard frost – the added winter garden ingredients only nature can provide.
The forecast had been an exaggeration but, luckily, it turns out that a winter wonderland doesn’t need snow: it can cloak itself just as wonderfully in reds, oranges, browns and greens.
We were too early to see the thousands of snowdrops, cyclamen, irises and eranthis hyemalis that will be at their peak in February and March. A small number of the advance guard could be spotted in flower in the woods, along the Winter Walk or sheltered in the glasshouse, giving a hint of the pleasure to come. But if you find yourself wondering whether a winter garden really has anything much of interest to offer in January, other than peace, you’ll find plant after plant lining up as if to say: ‘You misjudged me. You doubted there would be colour.’
The garden seemed full of birds, including the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), which is smaller, rounder and more orange than the American robin. Our robin redbreast is the most companionable of wild birds, happy to trade the risks of getting up close to a gardener for the chance of finding a worm. This little creature was fluffing his (or her) feathers against the cold, and was unfazed by a large creature looming over in breathless excitement to be able to get close enough for long enough to capture a decent iPhone picture.
Weak, early morning sunlight added a little magic to the formal water garden, making the film of ice on the water gleam, glancing off the walls and broken paving and highlighting the feathery seed heads left on the clematis stems. Beautiful at any time of the year, my only sadness is that the water garden is closed off by rows of potted plants to prevent visitors from falling in the water, so can only be admired from afar.
Harlow Carr is a teaching garden at heart. Interesting plant combinations are all around. Some areas are demonstration gardens, showing how to make a year-round garden in a small space; how to make little steps to help hedgehogs escape from ponds; how to grow vegetables and edge beds; how to support climbing plants, etc. My sweetheart claims he never visits the garden without coming away with some new ideas.
It’s child-friendly too, with a tree house and a play area. The garden has a sculpture trail which is expanded during some months, but has some permanent exhibits, such as the wicker Big Friendly Giant that towers amongst the trees.
In winter, our focus naturally shifts to the structure of a garden. We see the naked form of trees and admire the colour of the bark, branches and stems – some palely loitering, others bronzed, glossy and bold.
Another favourite place is the glasshouse where some of the more delicate specimens are displayed while at the peak of bloom. The plants are grown in clay pots sunk in sand to keep their roots cool and are watered with rainwater, harvested from the roof and guttering.
I find myself liking winter gardens more and more. We were grateful that Garden Manager Katherine Musgrove took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us. She suggested we might enjoy a book called Winter Gardens: Reinventing The Seasons by Cedric Pollet, and she was right. Don’t so much as glimpse in this book if you don’t want to be tempted to visit winter gardens. We each browsed through a copy in the bookshop (a treasure trove of gardening books) and after several rapt minutes of calling out ‘Have you seen page 82?’… ‘and page 114?’…, ‘Just look at page 46!’, we’ve added several more winter gardens to our to-visit list.
If you’re intrigued to find out more about Harlow Carr, take a look at the RHS website or browse through my earlier Harlow Carr posts (pictures don’t appear in this list view, but all is revealed when you click on the title of the post).