‘The strictest formality of design, with the maximum informality of planting’
WHEN you look at most gardens at this time of year, whether they are larger estates, open to the public or domestic gardens, viewed through a casual glance over the garden wall, there is often a lack of effective structure to the garden and its planting.
Many shrubs lose their leaves, leaving a bare skeleton for up to five months of the year.
Herbaceous perennials die back, leaving bare ground or mounds of half-dead material for us to clear up and flower beds take on a look of being in limbo ... not quite sure whether to burst into life or go back to sleep.
Add to this a lack of garden ornaments, functional or otherwise and choice architectural plants, and the garden seems to fall flat on its face during the winter months.
Choose a good evergreen hedge, one or two strategically placed topiary specimens, a cloud pruned box or one or two strategically placed garden ornaments and the garden comes back to life – the mass of hibernating plants then do not seem to matter any more.
One well placed specimen tree with good winter features such as Prunus serrula can lead the eye to the furthest reaches of the garden, distracting the mind and the eye away from the empty vegetable garden or the wheelie bins in the corner!
A stone bird bath, placed near a hedge or large shrub, where the birds feel safe and you can enjoy their antics, can provide a good looking and functional ornament in an otherwise flat and dead looking border.
Choose a nice piece of evergreen topiary, placed in a border or at the end of the garden and you can have some real fun, pruning it into whatever shape you feel – cloud pruning can be just as much fun.
Visit garden features such as the ancient topiaries of Levens Hall near Kendal in the Lake District or the maze at Hampton Court near London and you begin to see how clearly defined organic or inorganic structures in the garden give it a sound foundation on which you can build your more transitory plantings.
As Vita Sackville-West said of her garden at Sissinghurst in Kent: “The strictest formality of design, with the maximum informality of planting.”
Her use of manicured hedges and choice statues or garden ornaments still gives the garden a tremendous sense of permanence, even when the exuberant plantings of spring and summer have died back.
So, as you stare out of your window onto your winter garden, what hits you between the eyes?
If the answer is nothing, go down to the local garden centre and treat yourself to a piece of topiary and place it in a position that will make it stand out in winter and will attract the eyes of a visitor to that part of the garden, distracting them from the less well managed or apparently dead parts of the garden.
Treat yourself to a statue, an ornamental bird bath or a piece of sculpture to give the garden one or more focal points, from which can radiate any amount of planting.
To find out more why not visit these websites: www.frostatmidnight.co.uk, (Topiary in the United Kingdom) www.topiary.org.uk (The International Association of Topiary Growers and Suppliers), www.sculptures.org.uk, www.gardenornaments.com and www.haddonstone.co.uk .
To prune or not to prune – if you are tempted to cut back penstemons, phygelius, and fuchsias to keep them tidy at this time of year, get someone to lock the secateurs out of harms reach until April or May! Pruning now will expose soft, tender shoots and buds at the base of the plants to cold weather and this may kill the plant completely, particularly if the soil is poorly drained and the position is exposed to cold winds and rain.