A Devon winter garden
PUBLISHED: 10:00 28 December 2015
Intoxicating scents and vibrant colours bring the winter garden at RHS Rosemoor to life, writes Catherine Courtenay
Standing in the rain, a bucket full of soapy water on the grass beside him, a man is using a sponge to carefully rub the trunk of a birch tree, the wafer thin bark falling away to reveal a column of smooth, creamy whiteness.
As autumn gradually turns to winter, the team at RHS Garden Rosemoor begins the familiar cycle of preparing the winter garden - and that includes the fairly laborious task of sprucing up the Himalayan birch trees.
It’s the quality of the air in this valley on the edge of Torrington that causes lichen to grow profusely on tree bark. It’s often a welcome sign, but in order to show off the birches to their best, their trunks need to be cleaned, says garden curator Jonathan Webster.
The ghostly white limbs are a focal point of the winter garden, although scattered as they are throughout the space, they don’t dominate. “Birch are a classic for a winter garden,” says Jon, “but they can sometimes be overused.”
Just about the last section to be designed in Rosemoor’s original layout, the winter garden is around 25 years old. Approaching from the main entrance, it’s first seen against a backdrop of woodland; paths lead around the edges, curving behind a wooden shelter at the lower end of the garden. The structure is a strong focal point.
“In the low winter sun, it just stands out,” says Jon. “It makes the whole garden come alive.” It also acts as a perfect resting point, to stand, protected from the winter weather, and contemplate the long view looking back up through this garden.
A central sweep of immaculately maintained lawn surrounded by beds of cornus, heathers and hellebores; evergreen structure and flashes of reds and yellows as the weak sun catches the last remaining leaves of a willow, or filters through the flaking red bark of an acer. “The light brings such an intensity of colour,” says Jon.
He emphasises that the aim at Rosemoor is for the winter garden to look good all year round, although it’s time to really shine is from winter to early spring.
“It’s showing how you can plant an area to look good all year round and to inspire a palette of plants. It’s soft throughout the year then turns into something vibrant.”
Structure is important he says. “The frost on the evergreens in the winter sun, they really shine. Then there’s the fragrance of course, the berries and fruits, and also the grasses, and how they move.”
Nearer to ground level there are the flowering plants and bulbs, their colours and leaves taking the garden through the season. Winter aconites and snowdrops mix with hellebores, and bergenias, surrounded by the vibrant, punky stems of dogwood and willow.
And why is it that winter blooms - Christmas box, viburnam and wintersweet - smell so intoxicating? Possibly because it seems out of context, experiencing these exotic floral smells in the depths of winter; and of course they catch you unawares, the source of the perfume hard to spot at first but undoubtedly bringing a unexpected smile on a dull afternoon.
At Rosemoor they’ll be strategically placed near to paths where brushing past sends wafts of heady scent. We pass one of Jon’s favourites, a Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’
“It’s the real punch of the perfume,” he says. “It’s a cracking plant. It has a bit more life in it and is happier for longer than most daphnes, which do have a tendancy to suddenly fail.” Unlike the nearby mahonia: “They’re so tough, bomb proof,” he says admiringly as he tells me about its recent hard prune. “As long as you cut at the right time, they’ll be ok.”
Being an RHS garden, there’s a real mix at Rosemoor. “We are here to showcase the really great plants, the RHS Award Garden of Merit (AGM) plants, also the good old favourites, the tried and tested and then also to introduce some newer varieties,’ says Jon.
The garden is home to a national collection of cornus and also holly, with the latter being showcased this year in a specially devised trail taking visitors on a route past 18 different cultivars throughout the whole garden.
Behind the scenes there’s a constant programme of ‘auditing’ as Jon calls it, each area checked for standards and quality by a team of gardeners. Jon, along with James Sheppherd, who leads the winter garden team and others unconnected with the winter garden (to give an outside view, say Jon) get together to take a good long look at the planting.
This year a decision was taken to clear a section of bedding, and remove a large juniper making room for new skimmias and heathers to be brought in. The paths have also been redone, creating a clean edge through the garden.
Planning for these changes begins many months before they occur, it’s a constant weather-dependent juggling act for the team, along with the regular tasks such as maintaining the central lawned area - which has upwards of 17,000 visitors a year striding across it. All jobs that would be an unenviable task, whatever time of year, let alone on a cold, wet November morning.
Thinking back to the determined birch washer Jon smiles and reflects on how much there is to do in the garden throughout the year. He laughs: “And to think my old gran used to say to me, ‘whatever do you do in the winter?’”
Jon Webster’s Top Ten plants for a winter garden
Acer griseum: Commonly called the paper bark maple, this is a fantastic tree for small gardens and for providing all year round interest, however its most striking feature is the amazing cinnamon coloured peeling bark which is accentuated during the bleak winter months.
Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’: This is one of my favourite plants and a knockout for the winter months, its beautiful foliage highlights the colourful pale pink flowers which are borne during the winter months and plant near a path to enjoy their amazing perfume.
Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’: at RHS Rosemoor we have a Plant Heritage National collection of Cornus, this cultivar to me is the best green available tried and tested for many years. We cut it back very year around the beginning of April and then the new growth exudes a real strong and vibrant colour.
Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’: is the best red in my opinion and planted against green foliage plant can real give a bright highlight to your garden during the bleak winter months.
Betula utilis var jacquemontii: the Himalayan birch is an old favourite in any winter garden, but who can beat the pureness and illumination which the bark provides and is highlighted by the clear and bright winter light.
Cyclamen coum: this tough little bulb flowers at the start of the year through to March and offers a real punch of colour both with flowers and foliage, happy to grow in shade as it goes dormant during the summer months.
Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’: offering big and bold evergreen foliage which adds structure to the garden along with warming yellow flowers at the start of winter, this tough shrub can’t be beaten for value.
Sarcococca hookeriana var digyna ‘Purple Stem’: the Christmas box as it is commonly called is one of those little surprises, it looks quite plain in leave with glossy green foliage but under these are extremely scented flowers, plant near a path and really enjoy this during the winter months.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’: one of my all-time favourite plants this witch hazel provides a real buzz to the winter season, after providing rich yellow autumn colour the vibrant yellow highly scented flowers burst from the bare branches of the plant.
Ilex aquifolium ‘Handsworth New Silver’: another one of our plant collections are the hollies, with so many to choose from it is hard to pick but this cultivar stands out with attractive variegated foliage and vibrant berries as an added bonus.