We may not welcome
winter with its dark days and grey weather, but the
plants in our gardens do. Stephen Anderton looks at
just what this season's good for!
Gardeners must never be depressed at the thought of
winter. Be depressed at the thought of last year's lousy,
non-existent summer if you will, but not by winter.
Winter may be less busy than summer, especially for
us gardeners, but there is so much going on, visibly
business as usual. Tulip and daffodil and crocus bulbs,
which spent the summer resting in the dry ground, are
busy putting out a whole new set of roots to anchor
and feed themselves when in leaf and flower later in
the year. Trees that have lost their leaves will not
be drawing much water now, and the ground will be wetter
below them and cool, telling those bulbs it's time to
take a deep breath and start to put out roots and flower
again. But evergreen
trees and shrubs are still using water, especially when
it's windy. And their roots are still growing, even
if the branches are not. Potted evergreen tree
ferns remain remarkably thirsty, so keep them watered
Plants are masters of what a businessman would call
Resource Management. They do what they do in winter
(and summer) to make the best use of their resources.
The policy of evergreens is to keep their factories
- the leaves which make their energy to grow - running
all year, but on low production in winter. Other plants,
which lose their leaves, decide to take a long break
and shut down during the winter. There are no insect
customers then to pollinate flowers, and all in all
there is plenty of sense in a complete shut down for
a few months, so long as they have made and stored enough
energy in the bank, through the summer, to keep them
going through the winter.
Some plants just can't make sense of the British climate.
Mexicans and Central Americans, used to having their
break in the useless, arid, summer months, think that
the cooler wetter half of the year is a kinder time
to do business and flower. So once our days start to
shorten in the autumn they say whoopee and go into full
Salvias produce more
flowers than ever. Poinsettias think it's Christmas
and deck themselves with flowers. If only the poor sods
knew how relatively very cold our winters are going
to get, compared to Mexico! If it weren't for charitable
gardeners taking them under glass, or indoors, they
would go bust overnight, blackened after one good frost.
Time to send in the receivers. They have no insurance,
you see, no natural anti-freeze in their systems, in
the same way we Anglo-Saxon humans have insufficient
pigment in our skins to survive the Mexican sun unaided.
The marvel of our British climate is that we can grow
so many evergreens, broad-leaved and coniferous. It
means there is really no need for gardens to look shut
down in winter, even if things are a bit quieter.
In my garden I have all the summer razzmatazz of colourful
borders and pots, up towards the house, all making a
big splash when seen in the garden or from indoors.
At the bottom of the garden is a terrace with a bas-relief
wall behind it, and a largely evergreen landscape of
bamboos and clipped shapes. In the bright East Anglian
light I can see straight down there in winter (all the
summer foreground is cleared away by then), and to watch
the play of light and shade over a balanced composition
of architecture and structural plants is great. It's
not summer fuss, but it's very satisfying. And it's
a rest, a contrast from summer.
Gardens are made
of contrasts. That is how they make their effect. Sometimes
it's an all-green garden contrasting with a hard cityscape.
Sometimes it's just the clean lines of pots standing
out against a fence, or against the wispy or floppy
shapes of grasses planted within. Sometimes it's the
contrast of clean, crisp lawn to bubbling, colourful
borders. Or just the right orange contrasting beautifully
with just the right pink. Or a large round bergenia
leaf with an aspiring bamboo.
Contrast is the key, and with all the different evergreens
we can grow in this country, there is never any need
to feel short of interest in a winter garden. The knack
is to organize those plants, so that instead of having
a scattering of summer and winter interest everywhere
throughout the garden, you create contrasting areas
that make their effects at different times of year.
Have somewhere crisp and clear for winter, to light
up your heart, as well as the summer hurly burly.
Otherwise a gardener could find himself nipping down
the travel agents and enquiring about flights to Mexico.
See also the following related articles:
Verey on Winter Flowering Wonders
Swift on Winter Care for Exotic Plants
Lloyd on Winter Planning
reprinted with premission from Greenfingers.com