Playing With Light
The low winter light hits from the side, casting long, dramatic shadows. A mass of clipped yew, box or holly – all of which are evergreen and can be pruned into formal shapes – has real presence, and may provide a shelter belt.
For finer silhouettes that dance in the wind, ornamental grasses which hold their structure – such as Calamagrostis and Miscanthus – can be left in situ until February.
Whether you go for frontal or backlit effects, in the cool white morning or pink setting sun, planting on raised banks can enhance the impact. Create paths around the garden, weaving through ground cover or raised beds to get up close to emerging, late-winter shoots. But do keep some space open towards the south and west to let in light.
What works for plants also applies to garden structures — the bare bones of pergolas and trellis look stunning, and on frosty days the timber looks relatively warm contrasted with the snow and dormant plants.
Appreciate the changing textures and colours of your plants
Winter is the time to enjoy the textures of satiny or peeling bark — especially the branches of the maple, birch, cherry and willow families. These are all deciduous, meaning the bark on their exposed branches and trunk is touched by the sun.
There is yet more zing from the bright mauve berries of Callicarpa Profusion against the orange, scarlet, yellow or black stems of selected varieties of dogwood. To heighten these colours, it’s important to prune the plants hard, immediately after flowering in the spring.
When the weather is really cold, the scents of winter-flowering shrubs hit a high note. They’re especially intoxicating when placed by the front door or near a path. Good subjects include Sarcococca, Viburnum, Daphne, Mahonia japonica, witch hazel, winter honeysuckle and flowering quince.
Plan for Spring
To keep the momentum going, I rely on two factors. First, a generous coverage of evergreen planting (including burgundy and silver foliage), and secondly, winter-flowering species to fill the gaps.
For example, between the lavenders (which should be pruned hard in autumn) beautiful little naturalised Iris reticulata bulbs will pop up in February, before the lavender puts on fresh spring growth. And, if there so happens to be a mild spell in February to tempt bees into the sunshine, golden winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are a wonderful source of food.
Pots planted with hardy pansies and hyacinths can be manoeuvred into position — make sure they are frostproof, and never waterlogged.
Depending on the plant and place, some prize specimens may need to be fleeced. In the UK, we tend to underestimate the weight and potential damage caused by snow — though the last two winters might have shaken our complacency. As well as staking freestanding plants, be vigilant to increase the loading capacity of tensioning wires and pergolas to support their climbers.
Make sure too that your hard surfaces are weather- and slip-resistant; some budget ranges of sandstone are particularly absorbent, and their surface ‘blows’ when the ice expands. The biggest problem for hard and soft landscaping is a combination of too much cold and wet.
Images: Christine Savage