Gerry Daly: The charms of winter are many
The last of the leaves have fallen and the garden will not change much from now until March when spring shrubs and daffodils make their mark.
A good time to assess the garden for winter effect. The gardens most dismal in winter are those that do not have enough plants or large enough plants. If a garden depends for summer effect on small colourful plants such as bedding annuals or bush roses, the space will look empty in winter.
The charms of winter are many and can be listed as follows: bare trunks, twigs and buds; dried flower heads, leaves and stems of herbaceous plants; greenery of evergreens and the lawn; flowers of winter-flowering plants, and withered leaves or moss on soil surface. The low light of the weak winter sunshine highlights these aspects and makes the most of them.
Low winter sunshine reaches into places that are not lit in summer. Dried dead leaves will largely rot away before spring arrives but they will make part of the scene for a long time yet. Moss luxuriates in the renewed light and plentiful dampness and shines with emerald light. Bare trunks and branches can be clearly seen now, and it is surprising how they have grown, unnoticed, in girth since last year. Tree trunks and the stems of large shrubs have considerable decorative qualities of colour, texture and pattern. There are several tree species noted for their bark effects, including maples, eucalyptus, mahogany bark cherry and birch. Others such as willow and dogwood have brightly coloured twigs.
But even less noticeable kinds can contribute much because of the structural pattern of the branches. Every kind of tree and bush is different and, in fact, each individual tree has a unique branch pattern. Most people appreciate these effects without being aware of them, but being aware means they are much more enjoyed.
Plants with evergreen foliage keep the garden alive during winter and evergreens, mostly the broad-leaved kind, should be well represented in a garden for winter effect. If there is not a good proportion of evergreens, about one in four, the preponderance of deciduous trees can make the garden look lifeless. Some evergreens have yellow, variegated or purplish colour and, while these are useful, they should not be over-used. While the contribution of evergreen perennial flowers such as bergenia and lamb's ear is appreciated, the effect of withered flower heads, stems and leaves is often overlooked. Most herbaceous plants can make some contribution, especially those which wither rather than rot. For instance, hosta and Peruvian lily rot away completely soon after they wither, but the flower heads of sedum, the stems of phlox and campanula and the leaves of many grasses last for months before they rot and some of these do not rot until the summer.
Winter-flowering plants are few in number and are invaluable: witch hazel, fragrant viburnum, hellebores, winter-flowering cherries, sweet box, snowdrops, winter jasmine, daphnes and winter iris. Make sure to include some of these in key positions where they can be fully enjoyed. Many of these, such as daphnes, sweet box, witch hazel, viburnum and even snowdrops are among the best scented garden plants and this is an enjoyable aspect of the winter garden.