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The Garden in Winter

Rosemary Verey

gardeninwinter2This is possibly the definitive work on making your garden look a million dollars even when (especially when) there’s snow on the ground and frost on the leaves and the last thing on your mind is gardening.

The late Rosemary Verey needs no introduction: she is an icon, and a hero of mine for her conversational, surprise-peppered garden writing and for the potager she created at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire, inspiration for a thousand potagers to follow. You can still see it, but only once a year under the National Gardens Scheme or if you’re a guest at the ’boutique’ (yuck) hotel in whose grounds it is now.

Her book is now a quarter of a century old, but as relevant today as it ever was. She talks of using space, structure and pattern to make the stripped-back, bare bones of your garden look striking and as if they were the point of it all in the first place. I particularly love the fact that she puts such emphasis on shadows and silhouettes – elements often overlooked in garden design yet which can create such extraordinary effects in low winter sunlight.

Winter shadows, says Rosemary, add a ‘new dimension to the drama of winter gardening’.

‘On sunny days they look quite different at the beginning and the end of the day – changing in shape and direction, in intensity and sharpness of outline. Their density is affected by the material on to which they are cast – stone paving, brick, gravel or grass.’

A lesson if ever there was one on the importance of close attention to detail in designing a good-looking garden.

The pages are packed with nuggets of information like this which you’d never thought of before. Tapestry hedges, for example: combining different colours and textures alongside each other. And we’re not just talking green-and-copper beech here: Rhamnus alaternus ‘Argenteovariegata’ with its marbled grey leaves combined with dark green holly sounds rather sumptuous; or a hedge woven from choice hollies like ‘Blue Maid’, ‘China Boy’ and pyramidal ‘Dragon Lady’.

And then there’s the suggestion of a ‘winter corner’: an area of any garden, no matter how small, devoted to those very special flowers that bloom in wintertime. And, she recommends, it should be tucked away, so you have a positive inducement to walk out of the house; after all, she says, ‘it would be dull to have to say, ‘You can see it all from the window”.

In her winter corner she has hellebores of every kind; snowdrops (of course) and crocus, Chionodoxa luciliae and jewel-like, dainty Hepatica x media ‘Ballardii’. There’s mahonia and Daphne mezereum; almond-scented Abeliophyllum distichum and the willow Salix daphnoides ‘Aglaia’ which has plum-coloured stems and silvery catkins in February.

She draws on examples of other gardens throughout: Great Dixter in Sussex, ‘rich and varied as a pheasant’s plumage’ in winter; or Prince Wolkonsky’s garden, Kerdalo in Brittany, massed with evergreen phormiums in pink, deep purple and green, ‘to me every bit as memorable as a border bursting with summer flowers’.

But this is a book by a gardener, first and foremost, and I particularly loved the section on winter jobs, divided into ‘foul weather’, ‘icy weather’ and ‘fair weather’. There’s a winter work programme, just in case you were thinking of skiving off for a bit, with enough jobs to do that you’ll consider your March seed-sowing frenzy a well-earned rest by comparison.

Whenever I’m having a bit of a down day in the middle of December or January, whenever it seems it’ll never again be light in the evenings or warm enough to go outside in a t-shirt, I open this book and remind myself that winter, in its way, is as lovely a season as any in the garden. You’ve just got to bring it to the fore instead of letting it get hidden beneath the post-summer detritus, and celebrate it for the pared down, gentler beauty that it is.