Rea­sons to be cheer­ful in win­ter

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

THE late Duke of Devon­shire once re­marked that there were three de­grees of hor­ti­cul­tural en­thu­si­asm. Be­gin­ners like plants for their flow­ers and berries, he ob­served. Keen gar­den­ers pre­fer their leaves, but what ap­peals most to plan­to­b­sessed hor­ti­cul­tural lu­natics, he said, is the un­der­sides of leaves.

This came to my mind re­cently when I was choos­ing ev­er­greens for win­ter plant­ing. I should ex­plain that we are try­ing to make a new gar­den on a 2½-acre stretch of chalk down­land, just above the River Itchen. Rhodo­den­drons and camel­lias, which have given us such plea­sure in the past, are a com­plete no-no. Nev­er­the­less, the ex­perts tell us that the struc­ture and or­na­men­tal plant­ings of a gar­den should be largely com­posed of ev­er­greens.

I think that’s a bit of an over­state­ment, but there is no doubt that chalk gar­dens look a bit thin in win­ter. Apos­tles of the Prairie Gar­dens move­ment ex­pound the joys of Ger­man herba­ceous plant­ings, par­tic­u­larly grasses that look ethe­real in Jan­uary’s hoar frosts, but I pre­fer flow­ers.

Win­ter gar­dens were all the rage in Vic­to­rian Eng­land. They weren’t the rather forced as­sem­blies of pol­larded wil­lows and dog­wood stems beloved of the Na­tional Trust today, but proper gar­dens of ev­er­green trees and shrubs. Yews and lau­rels were their main­stay and these will fea­ture in a big way in my Hamp­shire de­signs. I’ve planted a hedge of cherry lau­rel seedlings (Prunus lau­ro­cera­sus) to take over from the splen­did 10ft-high box hedges that we in­her­ited here, but fully ex­pect to suc­cumb even­tu­ally to box blight.

I’m es­pe­cially fond of Por­tu­gal lau­rels, Prunus lusi­tan­i­cus: I love their red leaf-stems and long, airy spikes of white flow­ers. What’s more, they can be clipped into al­most any shape you wish.

Both lau­rel species have glit­ter­ing fo­liage, but (alas for the Duke) rather un­in­ter­est­ing un­der­sides all they sur­veyed in their gar­den. Put these two prin­ci­ples to­gether —the joy of a win­ter gar­den and the de­sire for pri­vacy—and I con­clude that we need to sur­round our land with thick ev­er­greens, through which a path will take us for a full cir­cuit of the prop­erty.

That’s an ex­cit­ing un­der­tak­ing. It presents us with a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge: to choose ev­er­green plants that com­bine hor­ti­cul­tural in­ter­est with con­stantly chang­ing con­trasts of shape and form.

We’re much bet­ter off than our Vic­to­rian fore­bears when green­ing our gar­dens for win­ter. The num­ber of holly cul­ti­vars avail­able now ex­ceeds 150 and conifers of ev­ery size nearer to 1,000. How­ever, I also fancy lots of phormi­ums and Trachy­car­pus palms to sug­gest that, even in mid­win­ter, we can frolic in a sub­trop­i­cal cli­mate. I’m not so sure about Erica carnea from the Dolomites; one should try to find beauty in ev­ery plant, but I still suf­fer from the delu­sion that these win­ter­flow­er­ing heathers are rather naff.

How­ever, there will be masses of lau­rusti­nus (Vibur­num ti­nus), which I love so much that I’ve even raised plants from seed. They flower from Oc­to­ber to March and con­vince you that life is beau­ti­ful even when the weather tells a dif­fer­ent story. And I will re­serve a spe­cial place for an­other vibur­num: V. rhyti­do­phyl­lum from China. It’s a lanky, suck­er­ing shrub with rather dull white flow­ers fol­lowed, oc­ca­sion­ally, by black fruits.

Why bother, you may won­der, with such a charm­less plant? The an­swer lies with its won­der­ful long leaves, which are crin­kled and wrin­kled, darkly glossy on their up­per sides, but cov­ered in bright-grey furry down on their un­der­sides. The Duke of Devon­shire would most cer­tainly have ap­proved.

Vibur­num rhyti­do­phyl­lum: dull white flow­ers and oc­ca­sional black fruits con­ceal long leaves with down-cov­ered un­der­sides

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