With foliage and flowers in shorter supply, damp days see Frank enjoying the intense colour of winter shrubs
Wet, polished bark and multi-coloured stems provide solace for Frank Ronan in the winter garden
Things are wet. The winter has become a steady drip. We can look for a crisp day at this time of year, but the crackle will all be in frosted humidity and nothing to do with dryness. You could shiver and turn your back to it, or you could look again and see what shine there is on these glimmering days that creep downwards to the solstice. Just as the most beautiful summer day is the one fresh and wet from rain, so it is still about the interplay of light and moisture. It is lucky for us that as the light becomes rarer and more precious, so the all-enhancing moisture is with us in reliable abundance.
We are obsessed, primarily with flowers and then with foliage, and the fact that both of them are in such short supply now can make us dismiss this season as a barren one, staring impatiently at the wintersweet, willing it into production, only to snip off the first flowers and rush them indoors to sniff at in the warm, or hacking at the holly bushes so that the berries can all be ours to admire as they shrivel, before the birds have had their chance.
Not that we can resist filling the house with holly and pine and ivy and mistletoe, but the amazing transformation they bring indoors make us forget how much more beautiful they were outside, in the damp. Every day living with us they become dryer and duller until we cast them out with relief long before Twelfth Night, forgetting to look again at how fresh and wet the still living things are in the garden. Maybe it is easier to see the effect on things we don’t traditionally harvest for decoration, not only other evergreens, but the bark of deciduous shrubs and trees. If that bark is shiny to start with, then a wet sheen will bring it to a highly polished state. If the bark is coloured the moisture will intensify and deepen the colour; if it is pale a mist will make it ghostly.
I was late coming to the sorts of willows and dogwoods that give good stem colour in the winter. I probably thought that you had to have a lot of them; a whole lakeside to have the full effect. But then one or two crept in for other reasons: a f lower admired in spring or a leaf in autumn: that combined with a damp bit of the border that had killed a succession of tamarisks and was calling out for something more bog tolerant. Now I realise you don’t have to have the grand, carriage-stopping show, or the perfect combination of a red, a yellow and an orange set off by the pristine bark of a white birch. Singletons, good in their own right and in more than one season, such as Cornus alba Baton Rouge (= ‘Minbat’), can be allowed to infiltrate any part of the garden, from where they can entice you, at random, whenever the winter spotlight falls on them.
Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders’ doesn’t have a bad day the whole year. There are a few weeks in spring when she has been shorn back to her stump and ceases to be remarkable, but even then she retains a charm rare among the pollarded. In the summer she is a beauty with her slightly twisting, barely purple, leaves, and if it rains she holds jewels of water all along the russet twigs, quivering and gleaming in the breeze. But it is in the winter that she becomes the goddess of the garden.
If you have a ground-floor window from which you can see the low sun in December, put Nancy between you and the light, and wait for the days when the rays are strong while there is enough moisture on her wet branches to refract it. There will be an optical effect like a huge, spherical, platinum cobweb, more brilliant than you can imagine is possible in the plant world.
IN RAIN SHE HOLDS JEWELS OF WATER ALONG THE RUSSET TWIGS, BUT IT IS IN WINTER SHE BECOMES A GODDESS
Frank Ronan is a novelist who lives and gardens in Worcestershire.