In Praise Of Winter Gardens, Plus A Tip Or Two

Wooden bench amongst winter plants and grasses
Bodnant Garden’s colourful winter garden

I’m a big fan of winter gardens that make the most of plants that look good when herbaceous borders are expanses of mulch-covered dirt. Trees with white trunks such as this Betula utilis var jacquemontii (Himalayan birch) often feature, together with evergreens, light-reflecting grasses, red stemmed Cornus (dogwood), Skimmia, Hamamelis (witch hazel), flowering heather, hellebores, Bergenia, Cyclamen and winter flowering bulbs.

Plants like this seem to shrug off winter weather, but the current cold spell means that the hardiness of plants of all types is being tested in many UK and American gardens.

Some gardeners go to great lengths to keep tender plants alive, wrapping their pots up, covering them with some form of plant blanket, or moving them indoors. Others will only plant what grows. Many of us are somewhere in-between, willing to offer our plant treasures a helping hand if conditions are unusually bad, provided we know what to do.

Overhead view of a pot protected from the frost
A pot of bulbs wrapped in burlap, with a double layer of netting to deter squirrels

Although we know some plants don’t like winter conditions, we don’t always think about exactly what it is that threatens them. Winter winds and sun desiccate the exposed parts of shrubby plants. Frozen ground prevents plants from taking up water to rehydrate themselves. In combination, these can kill or seriously weaken plants.

It might seem counter-intuitive to water plants when a freeze has been forecasted or after the frozen ground has thawed, but that might be just what they need. Containerised plants and plants supplied as bare roots that haven’t been in the ground long are particularly at risk.

Skimmia with grasses and red twiggy plants
Skimmia in Dunham Massey’s winter garden

I’d love to have that Tardis I often fantasise about to visit some of our best winter gardens while they are covered in snow. I’d need one to sneak inside the gates when the snow was at its thickest earlier this week. You might expect a winter garden to shrug off a bit of snow, but they often have to close because of access or other safety reasons.

The nearest one I know of, Dunham Massey, was closed on Wednesday when I thought about trying to get there and even I could see it was not sensible to think about crossing the Blubberhouses to get to RHS Harlow Carr or to make the 200 mile round trip to Bodnant Gardens (which was also closed at one point).

Hellebore with panicles of green, droopy flowers
Helleborus foetidus (Stinking hellebore) is a winter garden staple

Which brings me to my final tip: always check any garden’s website and Twitter account before visiting at any time of the year. There are all manner of nasty surprises for the unwary – gardens that don’t open on certain days, or only in the afternoons, gardens closed because of high winds or flooding, areas closed off for film shoots, special events or weddings, to say nothing of the many UK gardens that close entirely for the winter. That’s why our winter gardens are so special, with or without snow.

You’ll find news of any treats on offer too: exhibitions, special events (snowdrop open days spike this month), gardening tours and talks, and, looking to the future, late summer openings which I believe every major garden should offer at least once each year. We can always dream, can’t we?

27 Replies to “In Praise Of Winter Gardens, Plus A Tip Or Two”

  1. Yes, we can all dream, and your photos are making it so much easier!
    I need to add some winter color around here, I’m currently hunting down sources for a few new witch hazels, but the dogwoods are always so interesting as well. We never have a shortage of snowy days here, feel free to hop in that Tardis and visit if you feel the urge!

    1. I wish! Good luck sourcing the plants. I like the orange-red witch hazels best, but the yellow ones seem to do better. Perhaps it is just that their colour stands out more.

  2. I really love the look of the dogwood in the winter, its something we can certainly grow here in Wisconsin despite the cold and snow, but I can’t help but be unimpressed by them during the growing season… the bland foliage hides the beautiful stems and their shape is kind of messy. I wish I liked them more because they look so beautiful paired with those birch! (Full disclosure- there were some horribly overgrown ones taking over the garden when we moved in that took months to tackle, so maybe I’m just still scarred from that!)

      1. Yeah, that one doesn’t do much for me either (despite so many people telling me to use it!). Someone just needs to work on brightly colored stems/twigs for all the other great shrubs out there!

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