And almost every garden has something to offer in winter, whether it’s the fiery red or yellow stems of dogwoods, glossy holly leaves or just seedheads dusted with frost. But if your garden looks less than at its best during winter, one way of getting ideas on how to liven it up is to visit the gardens around Scotland that are open to the public. Many of these teem with colour during the summer months, but in the quiet of winter you can uncover the secrets that make them a success all year round.
A number of National Trust for Scotland (NTS) gardens remain open during winter (www.nts.org.uk) and Sinclair Williamson, the NTS gardens advisor says that there is plenty to see, from giant yew topiary at Crathes Castle Garden in Aberdeenshire to the mature trees and shrubs at Arduaine Garden, Argyll. “Lots of gardens look so different in the winter – people can really see the structure and the design becomes more important,” says Williamson. Two NTS gardens he says are worthy of a particular mention are Culzean and Inverewe. “Culzean for its fountain garden which I think looks good even in winter, and for the Camellia House and Walled Garden Vinery,” he says. “Then Inverewe for its interesting trees and shrubs and superb seascapes.”
Gardens with a formal design and lots of evergreens come into their own in winter, and there are plenty of good examples to choose from. The Hill of Tarvit Mansionhouse in Fife displays terraces, hedging and yew topiary while at Kellie Castle (also in Fife), you’ll find formal style in abundance with box hedging and interesting garden objects, from ornate lead planters to ornamental benches. Williamson makes the point that while many of the grand historic gardens would have specific areas designed to look their best at a particular time of year, modern-day gardeners are looking to get more out of their plot all year round. “I think it is important when planning a garden – especially as our smaller gardens today have to be multi-functional – that you start planning by considering the winter structure, and building up the layers from there,” he says.
Williamson says that traditionally gardens would have had a herbaceous border and a separate shrubbery, but now we tend to mix the two together. Luckily there are plenty of interesting winter-flowering shrubs to liven up our mixed borders. He recommends Viburnum bodnantense “Dawn” which has perfumed flowers and can flower over a long period and Daphne mezerium which boasts perfumed blooms in February and March. If you’re struggling to find just the right plant to liven up a corner of your garden in winter, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has plenty of suggestions (www.rhs.org.uk). Other shrubs you might want to consider include Arbutus unedo AGM, which has white or pink flowers between October and December, and the ever-popular Mahonia x media “Charity”, whose yellow flowers will cheer up the garden during November and December.
Several herbaceous perennials flower during winter, including Helleborus niger, the “Christmas rose”; Iris unguicularis which has lilac flowers and several species of Bergenia which have white or pink flowers. Climbers can play a role too – Iris unguicularis has cream flowers from November through until March. Colour and texture in the garden during winter can just as easily come from bark as from blooms, and trees and shrubs also offer valuable upright structure. The RHS’s suggestions for trees with eye-catching bark include Acer davidii “Ernest Wilson” – also known as the snakebark maple because of its green and white striped bark, and the snow gum, Eucalyptus paucifolia subsp. niphophila, with its multicoloured bark. Favourite winter shrubs include the dogwoods, particularly Cornus sanguinea “Midwinter Fire”, and also Rubus cockburnianus “Goldenvale” with its ghostly white stems.
One garden that never fails to disappoint no matter what month of the year you visit is the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (www.rbge.org.uk). “We’re perhaps at a slight advantage as we have hard paths around the gardens and also the glasshouses, which are a big plus,” says David Knott, curator of the garden’s Living Collections. “If it is a nice day then you can enjoy a bracing walk around the gardens but if not, you can escape from the cold and see the exotic plants.” He points out that a lot of the garden’s development work takes place at this time of year, so there are changes every week. While yews, conifers and box play a dominant role in the landscape of the garden, Knott says that deciduous trees and shrubs can also look good at this time of year, either because they are holding on to berries or because of their attractive bark. “It depends on the severity of the winter but if we have a more normal winter then there are flowering plants to see such as witch hazels, Viburnum and Sarcococca,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many shrubs come into flower over the winter months.”
Other highlights at the botanics include the winter-flowering Vireya rhododendrons and some smaller gems such as the Algerian iris in the Rock Garden and plants such as cyclamen, rare Turkish crocus and orchids from Nepal which should flower in January. David Knott says that barring a visit from a flock of fieldfares, berries such as rowan and cotoneaster can really add colour to the garden. The glasshouses with their tropical orchids and palms offer the equivalent of an instant holiday to sunnier climes. “The low sun highlights the evergreens, plants with berries and winter flowering plants, and at this time of year you can really see more of the structure,” says Knott. “I’d be surprised if people didn’t find something interesting to see in winter.”
You might not have the funds or the space to install glasshouses filled with exotic plants, but after a series of garden visits and a few judicial purchases of plants that shine in winter, you can ensure that your garden has something to catch the eye in every season.