Monday, 2 February 2015

Naked Gardens

It might seem somewhat perverse but when designing a garden one of the most important things to keep in the back of your mind is what it will look like during winter and what plants will look like when they are either dead or dormant.

Over the past few years we have all had a bit of a wake-up call as far as real winter is concerned.  Perhaps we have been lulled into a false sense of security with our previously mild weather but, as we have seen, it is a season that has to be taken seriously.  

Planting is often used to disguise a badly designed garden in the same way that clothes can be used as a cover up.  You might be able to get away with this during the summer when everything is lush the eye is distracted.  However in winter, when the garden has its clothes stripped away, you will see the less attractive bits which have nowhere to hide.

The basic design has to be able to stand alone.  It has to look good without any decorative plants.  Consider the shape, pattern and form of the garden.  Is it pleasing to the eye?  Do you have any features that are particularly interesting?  It could be something as simple as the curve of a wall, the reflection of the sky in a still pond or the way light falls across a terrace.

From this point it can be ‘decorated’ with plants.


The main plant emphasis during winter is on bark, berries, seed heads, evergreens and the shape, form and silhouettes of dead or dormant perennials, shrubs and trees.  

There are also some lovely scented flowers to enjoy.  At the moment the perfumes from Sarcococca Confusa and Daphne Bholua 'jacqueline postill' are utterly bewitching - to name but two examples.

Sarcococca Flowers are highly scented

Bark and twigs can be shining white, patterned, bright glowing red and orange or gleaming like polished mahogany.  One of the best for white bark is the frequently seen Betula utilis var. 'Jacquemontii'.  Prunus serula has extraordinary mahogany bark which is the colour of freshly opened conkers.  The dogwoods, particularly Cornus alba 'Sibirica' and Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' have glorious twigs at this time of year which are scarlet or flame coloured and look particularly fine planted in groups where the low sun can illuminate them.

Prunus serula bark gleams in the sun.

Berries come in lots of different colours ranging from white to yellow, orange, pink, red, blue and dark purple.

The structure of many of the ornamental grasses and some herbaceous perennials once they are dead are exceptionally lovely and could stand all winter like mini bronze sculptures.  The Miscanthus species stand particularly well all winter until you chop them down in about March to allow the new growth to come through.

Miscanthus turn silver.

Evergreens give colour, substance, depth and shadow but be careful of packing in too many.  They can look a bit artificial particularly in rural settings.  Use small groups, don’t dot individual specimens.  For something a bit different consider using the black/purple leaved Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Tom Thumb'


Winter can seem very long so it is worth taking a little extra trouble to make sure that your garden looks just as good dressed or naked.

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