Reasons to be cheerful in winter
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