Do you have to be so tidy? Hoar frosts and the low winter
sun will bring drama and a stark beauty to your garden
if you leave seed heads, bleached grasses, dried flowers
and teasels in place, as Christopher Lloyd reveals
Whether you prefer to see masses of bare soil in the
winter garden or to leave the remains till spring of
and some annuals
that have a good structure is largely a question of
what sort of person you are.
In my garden, spring bedding
apart, we leave the main overhaul of our mixed borders
till March. Till then, there are many plants whose old
remains look picturesque. Furthermore, when we do get
down to the main business of replanting where necessary,
at the same time, the presence of those remains will
remind us usefully of where everything is, what it is
and of how tall it grows. Another point: the soil beneath
old remains always stays workable. As soon as bared
to the sky, it tends to become slimy and like a pudding.
I speak of clay
soils, of which ours is an example.
Teasels look really
imposing in winter and their seeds provide food for
goldfinches. The tall and stately cardoons,
first cousins to globe artichokes, have enormous thistle
heads and this, on a small scale, is the shape of carlinas
acaulis and the biennial C. vulgaris. These depend
on dry weather to open them out wide and look their
That also goes for a little autumn-flowering, purple
knapweed, Serratula seoanei. In winter, its flower heads
become pale brown but are so beautifully shaped as to
seem to be in flower again. That only happens when brisk
winds from the northeast have quite dried them out,
so late winter is often their best moment.
“When do you dead-head
your hydrangeas?”, I am often asked in spring,
with the implication that I should have done them already.
The answer is that I combine their pruning with the
removal of spent flower heads. That will be in March
but preferably before growth has become so forward that
the pruner is apt to knock off prominent shoot buds.
One of the best for its large, parchment brown bun-heads
is the ultra-hardy Hydrangea
arborescens ‘Annabelle’. In summer,
this starts pale green, then becomes pure white, like
All the sedums have slightly domed but basically flat
flower heads and, being of strong, stiff structure,
they make ideal winter skeletons. The most imposing
‘Herbstfreude’ (Autumn Joy) (0.5m).
It is one of those plants that looks especially striking,
even a touch comical, when heaped over with snow. The
achilleas have similar corymbs, as these flat heads
are known. One of the most grown and most steadfast
through winter is Achillea filipendulina ‘Coronation
Gold’ (1m) as also the taller Achillea
filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’ (1.5m).
At Dixter we have
double hedges, linking the ‘peacock’ units
in a yew topiary garden, of a michaelmas daisy, Aster
lateriflorus ‘Horizontalis’ (1m). It
has a stiff, bushy habit and one of its advantages is
that it continues to look presentable and well furnished
throughout the winter, being especially attractive when
sparkling with hoar frost. Aster sedifolius (1m), with
dense heads of mauve flowers in August, can also look
good in winter, when it is flecked with white seed pappus.
The bolt-upright stems of border phloxes, Phlox
paniculata cultivars, are of no great beauty in
winter but I leave them till the new year, by which
time they are entirely sere and light as feathers. With
a low, sideways tap. they can then be knocked over and
will break off lower than they could ever be cut. As
many of mine are interplanted with snowdrops and tulips,
these are then freed of interference as they start growing.
One of the great virtues of many (not all) ornamental
grasses is their dominant appearance in winter. The
best, in my garden, is Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Carl
Foerster' (2m). All fluffy and yielding when it flowers
at the end of June, its stems then straighten and stiffen
and bleach to pale fawn, appearing like stair rods right
through winter till cut back late March.
The oat-headed Stipa
gigantea looks good until battered and bared by
stormy weather. Indeed, the appearance of many grasses
over a long period depends to a large extent on their
exposure to weather. Another that is outstandingly persistent
is Stipa calamagrostis (1m), its bleached flower heads
retaining their elegant, elliptical shape.
All in all, we are missing out on many winter pleasures
by being excessively tidy.
our Superstore to see its range of grasses, hydrangeas
and many more plants and related products
reprinted with premission from Greenfingers.com