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 and invisibly.
Underground it's 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 too.
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 production.
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:
Rosemary Verey on Winter Flowering Wonders
Joe Swift on Winter Care for Exotic Plants
Christopher Lloyd on Winter Planning