Now and Then: January

When Margaret Nettlefold planned the garden at Winterbourne, daughter Valerie revealed that her mother ‘lived with gardening books for a year or so’. Here, the influence of Gertrude Jekyll is inescapable. Winterbourne is filled with Jekyllian detail inspired by her 1899 classic Wood and Garden. Each month, we follow in Margaret’s footsteps to see how the garden compares now and then…

“The ground has a warm carpet of pale rusty fern; tree-stem and branch and twig show tender colour-harmonies of grey bark and silver-grey lichen, only varied by the warm feathery masses of birch spray. Now the splendid richness of common holly is more than ever impressive, with its solid masses of full, deep colour, and its wholesome look of perfect health and vigour.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

In January, gardeners must attempt to convince themselves that it is foliage, not flowers, which they have loved all along – and not just any foliage but evergreen foliage at that. Flowers are for the fickle! Here today and gone tomorrow, but foliage is in it for the long haul; knitting the whole scene together and providing texture, form and colour even on the darkest winter day.

Sempervivum calcareum, Now and Then, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Sempervivum calcareum on the Tea Room Bunker

Centuries of plant hunting (and warmer winter temperatures) mean we have more species of plant at our disposal than ever before, so flower-shyness is no excuse for failing to make a splash. Carefully selected foliage plants can make striking combinations in their own right by contrasting together leaves of a different shape. Conversely, a repetition of the same form over and over again can prove to be just as effective.

For two years now we have displayed our Sempervivum collection on top of a utility bunker near the entrance to the Tea Room. Sempervivum are small succulent perennials with fleshy, triangular leaves which spiral concentrically from the centre of a rosette. Here, their neat, uniformed habit of growth is contrasted brilliantly with the broad leaves of plants such as Fatsia japonica and Cyclamen hederifolium.

Tea Room Bunker display, Now and Then, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

The Tea Room Bunker display

Sempervivum are evergreen and perform admirably in winter but tired plants will need some attention in the autumn to ensure they look their best. Mature rosettes die once they have flowered. Their offsets must be lifted and re-planted in the centre of the pot. This will ensure a compact display free from unsightly bald spots where the mother plant has died.

 “A very few flowers can be made to look well if cleverly arranged with plenty of good foliage; and even when a hard and long frost spoils the few blooms that would otherwise be available, leafy branches alone are beautiful in rooms. But, as in all matters that have to do with decoration, everything depends on a right choice of material and the exercise of taste in disposing it.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

Shortly before Christmas we asked Carole Patilla from Tuckshop Flowers to decorate the ground floor of Winterbourne House with a series of festive foliage displays. Carole was tasked with creating a range of decorations to compliment the Arts and Crafts style of the house. The results show just how much you can do with materials grown locally, or even gathered from the garden itself.

Using her previous experience as a professional gardener, Carole designed a series of natural arrangements with a ‘wild garden’ feel. Eucalyptus and spruce leaves were used as a glaucous green base to blend with the decor of the house (and provide lovely wintry scents) whilst pine cones and twisted alder branches added woody textures and architectural interest.

Carole Patilla, Now and Then, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Carole Patilla’s festive foliage display

These greens and browns were lifted by delicate white flowers including lilies, roses and Helleborus niger which was kept alive in pots hidden amongst the display. This particular Hellebore benefits from pot culture where its delicate nodding flowers can be lifted and appreciated up close. Planted in the ground, the effect can be ruined; they flower on extremely short stems and the petals are often splashed by mud.

Displays such as these will last up to two weeks in a cool room, out of direct sunlight, but most are installed in centrally heated homes where a one week vase-life is more typical. Water is a key factor – it must be changed regularly to prevent a build up of bacteria. Choose lots of tough, evergreen foliage like Carole to give your display the best chance of surviving inhospitable conditions.

 “I do not much care for dried flowers – the bulrush and pampas-grass decoration has been so much overdone, that it has become wearisome – but I make an exception in favour of the flower of Eulalia japonica, and always give it a place. It does not come to its full beauty out of doors; it only finishes growth in late October, and therefore does not have time to dry and expand.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899

Dried flowers are once again back in vogue – not only arranged in the house but left over winter in beds and borders as well. Mass plantings of late-season perennials and grasses, left to fade naturally throughout the winter, were re-popularised in the 1990s. When the beauty of decay is accepted, these plantings assume an additional dimension, with a depth of tone and form absent from borders that are cut-back all at once in the autumn.

Miscanthus, Now and Then, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Miscanthus in the Monocot Border in winter

Miscanthus sinensis (which Jekyll knew as Eulalia japonica) has always been popular thanks to its bold, architectural outline and long, thin blades of foliage which change from green to bronze in autumn. Grasses like this are ideal for providing structure in the winter garden. They don’t like to be cut back before February, leaving their feathery seed heads to tremble in the breeze and catch the light of low winter sun.

Not all plants will be so obliging; many will quickly collapse in a soggy heap. A selective cut-back of borders in autumn should remove those plants which quickly lose their form and leave those strong (and attractive) enough to warrant a place. At Winterbourne Geranium, Alchemilla and Campanula are amongst the first to go, leaving behind more robust performers such as Eupatorium, Aster and Iris.

Allium, Now and Then, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Allium seed heads decorating the Old Kitchen Courtyard

Many more delicate plants will justify extra protection. Every year, we cut and hang giant Allium seed heads under a canopy in the Old Kitchen Courtyard, where they will stay for several months, far longer than they would last alone in the garden. So there’s no excuse for ignoring your borders in January, even without fresh flowers to admire. With a little imagination, those plants that have flowered, faded and gone to seed already will serve you just as well.

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