An after-dark trip to see the winter light show at Anglesey Abbey just before Christmas made me think about the origins of gardens especially designed and planted for the more inhospitable months of the year. There are plenty of them these days – presumably to keep the visitor numbers up – as was certainly the case at Anglesey, where timed tickets for the evening were quickly sold out and there were even queues going round the narrower parts of the garden – but I had no idea when this idea started.
It’s not that there aren’t lots of references and even books about gardening in winter – there are – but most searches for “winter gardens” give results about giant Victorian conservatory gardens or just list nice places to go for a winter stroll rather than those have been specifically created to make the most of the season.
Back home I began checking, looking I suppose for a potted history of the Winter Garden phenomenon. Interestingly there is no entry for them in Patrick Taylor’s Oxford Companion to the Garden, which is always a good source of basic information, so where next?
The love of bare branches, even if with colourful berries or interesting bark, or a few stray flowers beneath certainly didn’t start in the 18thc. William Shenstone, for example, had clearly no love whatsoever for the effects of winter on his garden. One of his Disconnected Thoughts was: “To see one’s urns, obelisks and waterfalls laid open; the nakedness of our beloved mistresses, the naiads and dryads, exposed to that ruffian winter to universal observation, is a severity scarcely to be supported by the help of blazing hearths, cheerful companions and a bottle of the most grateful burgundy.”
A century or so later William Robinson was more positive, arguing that “the idea that winter is a doleful time for gardeners must not be taken seriously” but his championing of winter flowering plants did not have the success of his championing of ‘natural’ gardening.
A check through Biodiversity Heritage Library catalogue revealed very little from the rest of 19thc either apart from Garden Colour of 1895 which had a section on Winter by Vicary Gibbs. Much is revealed about his presumed audience from the opening sentence: “Considering how many people in England spend the Autumn and the Winter in their country homes and the Spring and the Summer in London it is curious that more pains are not taken to plant trees and shrubs which are at their best during the later season of the year.” However, social snobbery aside, he goes on to suggest suitable plants “and the way they should be treated.” Gibbs is also clear that the best effects do not require exotic plants but can be obtained “by quite cheap and common stuff if properly handled.” Unfortunately what then follows is just 20 or so pages of plants with brief cultivation hints but no suggestions as to how they might be combined or used to create a winter border or garden… and despite the book having about 50 colour plates not one is of any of Gibbs winter subjects.
I had more hopes when I found EA Bowles My Garden in Autumn and Winter written in 1915, but he too has very limited coverage – just 8 pages out of 260 – on the garden “in the grip of winter”. Mostly it’s about the problems of weeds continuing to grow on his rockery but there are a few hints of much more modern sense of aesthetics when he says : “There is a wonderful beauty in old dead stems, the kecksies, of many plants in a soft winter’s evening glow.” But nothing about a garden designed specifically for winter.
Luckily Gertrude Jekyll turns up something a little more apposite. In Colour in the Flower Garden, there is a short but again unillustrated chapter which talks of woods at Eastnor Castle being “painted” by Lord Somers with “bright-barked” trees in the mid-19thc. She goes on to outline a plan for a winter walk at her own Munstead “beyond the home garden and partly wooded old shrubbery” where “there is a little valley running up into a fir-wooded hill” and she lists the plants that she had, or wanted to have there. It included some which we might not instantly regard as of “winter interest”such as cistus which “in all mild winter days” she valued for “giving off their strong cordial smell”. She also saw the advantages of being able to take in the view from the hillside across “the purples and greys of the leafless woodland of the middle distance” which “have a beauty that no summer landscape can show”. What I can’t see is any sign that she actually created the walk.
So it’s not really until after the Second World War that the idea of winter gardening seems to attract garden writers serious interest. Vita Sackville-West wrote a long section in a very long and rather turgid poem about it in 1946
Gardener, if you listen, listen well:
Plant for your winter pleasure, when the months
Dishearten; plant to find a fragile note
Touched from the brittle violin of frost
Then in 1948 Stanley Whitehead, a prolific but now forgotten writer, really started the ball rolling by asking “are we not too ready to write off winter as a lost season?” Part of the reason for this he ascribed to the fact that most plants of winter interest were comparatively recent introductions. He took the idea of planning for winter effect seriously devoting an early chapter to the subject, noting in particular that in many ways it needs to be better designed than a summer garden because its structure is laid bare and errors of design were thus blindingly obvious.
Next it was John Gilmour, then director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, who as early as 1951, laid out a collection of winter interest plants grown in a very formal way, in a long narrow corridor. This was removed later because of later redevelopments of the area.
As far as I can see the first attempt at a planned winter border for its own sake was Graham Stuart Thomas’s work at Polesden Lacey, a far cry from the rose gardens and herbaceous borders for which he is renowned. As the National Trust says the small Winter Garden there “is an iconic example of the sheer breadth of his creative vision… and blooms with vibrant colour and fragrance during the coldest months of the year. He followed it up in 1957 up with Colour In The Winter Garden which includes two planting plans for small winter borders.
Despite this it’s probably not for another 10 years that the ornamental winter garden idea begins to take off. And the place where it probably started was at Bressingham in Norfolk, home of the Bloom family nursery and gardens which, until then, specialised in perennials. Adrian Bloom joined the business in 1962 and to make a distinctive contribution decided to look for a group of plants that were not already well represented in their catalogue. He chose conifers – particularly those suitable for suburban gardens and by 1967 he had over 200 varieties – and 20 yrs later there were nearly a million growing in his own garden and nursery at Foggy Bottom in 1000 varieties.
At first these were intermixed with other plants and then he started experimenting on a small-scale with beds of silver birch, dwarf conifers, heathers and some basic winter perennials planted together. This led on, from 1967 onwards, to larger beds and borders and the use of a wider range of trees and shrubs.
The gardens featured from time to time on BBC Gardeners World and I suspect the big breakthrough in identifying the winter garden as a standalone feature was Bloom’s appearance in 1991 with Stefan Buczacki, looking at winter flowers. The following weekend the garden had 6000 visitors. As Bloom said “the power of television is amazing but so is the lift that plants in all their beauty and drama can bring.” It was to lead him, in 1993, to write Winter Garden Glory packed with colourful photographs to prove his point.
Meanwhile Cambridge University Botanic Gardens created their now famous winter garden starting in 1979, making it the first botanic garden in the UK to dedicate such a large area solely to plants offering ornamental winter interest. It was designed in the late 1970s by CUBG’s then superintendent, Peter Orriss and supervisor Norman Villis. This has gone from strength to strength over years as it has matured and now the scent of the massed plantings of scented shrubs, notably Daphne bholua “Jacqueline Postill” assails the visitor long before the Winter garden is even seen.
Gradually our big horticultural organizations began to see that Winter Gardens could be a popular attraction. In 1986 Wakehurst opened its winter garden initially focussing on specimen-based planting. It has just replanted with the official opening of the new version being held later this month.
Ten year later in 1996 the Sir Harold Hillier Garden at Romsey began laying out its Winter Garden, and this has recently been extended to 4 acres. It marked a different approach to how much of the original Hillier Arboretum, as it was known, was planted, being now much more concerned with plant combinations and massed effects rather than individual specimens. There is also a strong emphasis on making the most of winter scent, alongside unusual barks, stems and structure.
1996 also saw the opening of the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey just north of Cambridge and I’m going to cover that the history of the gardens there in more detail next week.
After that the Winter Garden suddenly becomes fashionable. Marks Hall opened its Millenium Walk 2000 with winter specifically in mind.
There is no specific Winter Garden at Wisley, but a winter walk instead but one opened at Harlow Carr in 2006. There is another at Rosemoor and a new Winter Garden opened in 2018 at Hyde Hall in Essex.
The National Trust had also taken up the idea big time, again one suspects to increase visitor footfall especially as more and more properties are open throughout the year.
Dunham Massey in Cheshire is the largest Winter Garden in Europe, stretching to 7 acres. It was laid out in 2007, with advice from Roy Lancaster, on what had become a overgrown and neglected area of the estate, originally part of Dunham’s deer park. It took some time to establish and was opened for the winter of 2009. The following year another opened at Mottisfont, perhaps as a counter-attrcation to the famous rose garden.
Another great garden with a reputation for one season/range of plants where a Winter Garden has been created is Bodnant. Taking four years to plan, and another two to install it was built on the site of a neglected Edwardian rockery and opened in 2012. Other National Trust gardens where there are new Winter Gardens include Osterley in west London and Kingston Lacy in Dorset.
Even when they haven’t laid out specially designed Winter Gardens the Trust is strongly encouraging people to visit many of its other great gardens at this time of year to see them in a new light, particularly the structure and effects of snow and frost. Their website has a long list of gardens with areas of winter interest including Biddulph, Stowe Sourhead, Mount Stewart and Rowallane.
Where the big organizations have led so smaller gardens open to the public are taking up the cause too. Sometimes its just opening for snowdrops such as at Hodsock Priory near Nottingham but in other places its involved designing a Winter Garden such as the one at Littlethorpe Manor in Yorkshire which opened in 2008.
Newspapers too have taken up the cause of promoting the garden in winter and most gardening columns now carry the obligatory 10 or 20 great gardens to visit this winter. As Matthew Wilson wrote in the Financial Times recently “The notion that gardens somehow go to sleep at the end of October has always irked me. Gardens never sleep, nor do they cease to be interesting. If the additions of seasonal lighting displays and specialist winter gardens encourage more people to discover and embrace the underlying natural beauty of gardens in winter then so much the better.” [FT 9th Nov 2018]