THE current vogue for winter garden visiting shows no signs of abating. Owners of large gardens are extending the season into winter by adding to bulb collections and planting trees selected as much for bark interest as summer foliage.
Large gardens tend to lie at a distance from the house and rely on the established structure of tall deciduous trees, conifers and hedging for winter interest. Open lawns covered in a light layer of frost take on a magical quality as do icy ponds and ice-encased tree branches.
But if, like most of us, your house overlooks a compact garden and you want attractive plants to look at during the winter, what can you do? Is it possible to create a garden that comes to life in the short, dark days of winter, a garden that dances in the sunlight of a frosty morning?
Enter Raymond and Marjory Boak whose garden surrounds three sides of their converted steading and which they look out on to from all angles: their rounded sitting room, a former horse mill, has windows on all sides. Situated on the edge of the village of Ballindean in Perthshire, the quarter-acre garden initially boasted few of the advantages of its situation on the edge of the fertile Carse of Gowrie.
Marjory, a skilled amateur floral and bot-anical artist, explains her interest was the key to creating a year-round planting scheme that really comes into its own in winter, especially on a frosty morning. “I need lots of foliage,” she says “and I need it year round. I just go into the garden and cut and cut.” The solution, the result of accumulated experience gained from many years gardening in different places, is a large variety of foliage, much of which is evergreen.
The scene is set outside the garden, where the shiny leaves of a magnificent variegated holly await their annual trim. Turn into the steading and the entrance is marked by a Scots pine, a blue green cedar, different conifers and a crab apple.
Eleven years ago when the couple arrived at Ballindean, the garden consisted of two rubble- filled courtyards. The delivery of a lorry load of top soil, all of which had to be barrowed in manually, soon solved the problem. Ray used recycled stone to build the curved, semi-raised beds and low walls that define the space. He also built the rockery in the west-facing courtyard, fitting it with a water feature that brings sound to the garden.
Maintenance was kept deliberately low; the paths are covered in easy-to-tend gravel and the beds are small enough to be easily managed. “We spend a lot of time in the garden,” Ray says, “but we wanted it to be enjoyable and not a chore.”
Once the soil was set, it created the opportunity to establish the foliage plants Marjory wanted, in combination with the variety of herbaceous plants – hostas are particularly useful in floral art – that fill the beds in summer and the roses, clematis and evergreen honeysuckle that ramble up the walls. Such is the shelter and warmth of this westerly part of the garden that one rose, the last remaining plant from the previous owners, frequently blooms in December. “This part of the garden is a real sun trap,” Ray says.
Marjory, who favours an informal, naturalistic style in her arrangements, wanted to continue the same theme in the garden. Evergreen shrubs, such as red-flowered Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’, variegated Eleagnus, silvery Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ and the shiny dark green-leaved Griselinia form a structural background. Skimmia, Marjory says, is a favourite plant as it looks good in all conditions, rain or frost. Smaller, lower varieties of evergreen include myrtle, hebe and red flushed azaleas. Hellebores and ferns soften corners and add movement, while heather brings texture and soft colour to the palette. Clumps of claret-edged bergenia are tucked between plants and spill over the side of beds. “I use their foliage in all my winter arrangements.”
Stronger colour comes from strategically placed blue painted benches that catch the sun, and from red, blue and yellow polyanthuses that fill the containers which Marjory slots into any available spot. In spring, hosta and fern beds are filled with varieties of softly coloured bulbs to lighten the scheme. Ranging from iris to grape hyacinths and leading into daffodils, the bulbs form a striking transition from winter to summer. Like everything else in this garden they are useful for flower arranging.
“Even branches that are a bit weathered are useful,” Marjory says, eyeing the last remaining crimson leaves on the crab apple. This year the frost has been late coming to this part of Perthshire, but now it has, the wait is worth it. “This garden is transformed in the frost,” she says, “it really comes alive.” k
The Round House, Easter Ballindean Steading, Ballindean, Inchture, PH14 9QS, is currently for sale through Thornton’s Property Perth (www.thorntons-law.co.uk)