The Winter Garden

The Birch Grove at Anglesey Abbey, photo by Edward Moss

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.

Anglesey Abbey, photo by Edward Moss

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 

The Winter Garden at Osterley

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.

from Robin Lane Fox’s article on Cambridge Botanic’s Winter Garden, Financial Times 9th March 2018

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.

The new Winter Garden at Wakehurst to be opened in Jan 2019

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.

The Winter Garden at Osterley

After that the Winter Garden suddenly becomes fashionable.  Marks Hall opened its Millenium Walk 2000 with winter specifically in mind.

The Millenium Walk seen across the lake at Marks Hall, from Daily Telepgraph 5th Feb 2017

RHS Garden Harlow Carr                                       © RHS from Financial Times 9th Nov 2018

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’s Winter Garden                  photo by Alistair Poole


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.

Anglesey Abbey photo by Edward Moss


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]

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2 Responses to The Winter Garden

  1. cboot says:

    I have happy memories of the small but beautifully formed winter colour garden at The Chelsea Physic Garden, in the late 1980s or early 1990s(?). Especially for my first sighting of white bramble stems. And what small town garden would be without a bright and scented yellow mahonia to cheer a winter morning?

    I also visited the Cambridge Botanic Garden in winter a couple of years ago and was especially struck by the variety of fragrances which seemed to travel especially well on a cold crisp and sunny morning. This has just celebrated its 40th birthday and they put out a good press release which I really should have included in teh last GT news (but lack of space…).

    “In 1979, Cambridge University Botanic Garden was the first botanic garden in the UK to dedicate an area solely to plants offering ornamental winter interest. In 2019 we celebrate the 40th birthday of our Winter Garden – a vibrant, colourful and fragrant space of brightly coloured stems, winter flowering shrubs, trees with interesting bark or winter flowers, perennials and bulbs. 40 years on, the Winter Garden remains at the forefront of winter gardening.”

    And Tony, you really should give it a try! We have had a series of light shows at nearby (Buckinghamshire, UK) Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschild/NT show garden extraordinaire. A sight which will live long in the memory is the river of lights (purple-red-green-blue) running down the “Daffodil Valley”.

    Happy New Year!

  2. tonytomeo says:

    Those first two pictures, and second to the last, look like tree discos.
    One of my colleagues wants to uplight some of the trees at work. I am none too keen on the idea, because it does not fit the rustic style of the landscape there.

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