Borders of late colour and perfume
An inspiring walk through Harlow Carr gardens in North Yorkshire reveals the beauty to be found in the colder months of the year
ON A COLD, crisp day, as November heads to its close, the last autumn leaves glow red and gold in the watery light of the emerging sun. In a garden in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, early morning mist swaddles the base of trees, while birds make the most of an abundance of lush rowan, holly and cotoneaster berries. Soon, as first frosts begin to nip, the final leaves will fall, and the scene will be set for the annual Winter Walk. But despite the bare branches, this is not a farewell to colour in what is a carefully planned garden. Visitors to Harlow Carr can stroll along a broad path that meanders through deep borders filled with plants that challenge the assumption that the colder months are a dreary time for gardens. It is a place where sparkling frosts and swirling snowflakes set the scene for a wide range of plants that give of their best during the coldest months of the year. The walk is overseen by horticulturalist Russell Watkins, who leads a team of staff and volunteers responsible for the upkeep of this part of the RHS garden. Selecting plants for winter demands a different approach, as Russell explains. “With summer perennials, I might choose more complementary colours, but with the Winter Walk, I’ve been a bit bolder, creating contrasts to make it as vibrant as possible.” This comes mainly from two groups of plants, whose brightly coloured stems are most often associated with winter gardens, namely dogwoods and willows.
With a palette including fiery reds and oranges, deep maroons and acid greens, these shrubs produce their brightest colour on fresh new growth. To make the most of this, gardeners adopt the traditional woodland craft of coppicing, which involves cutting established trees and shrubs back to just above ground level, and pollarding, where the trunk is cut to a height of 4-5ft (1.2-1.5m) from the ground. At Harlow Carr, the scarlet willow, Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’, is pollarded to form medium-sized trees, which bear fiery crowns of red stems in winter. Of the dogwoods, Russell favours the orange varieties, the signature
“Beauty still lives, tho’ nature’s flow’rets die, And wintry sunsets fade along the sky! And nought escaped thee as we stroll’d along, Nor changeful ray, nor bird’s faint chirping song” Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton, ‘The Winter’s Walk’
plant in the walk being Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’. Its stems start red near the ground and turn orange at the tips of the branches. Similar in form, Cornus sanguinea ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’ has stems that are yellow at the base, deepening to orange and red at the tips. Planted in repeated drifts, they give the impression of glowing flames, drawing the eye along the path. Also on the walk, the almost black stems of Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ contrast with the white trunks of birches and combine well with pale-flowered hellebores. Even darker are the ebony stems of the willow, Salix myrsinifolia, while those of Salix acutifolia ‘Blue Streak’ have a bluish-white bloom on the stems. For Russell, the most vibrant colour of all comes from the golden willow, Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Yelverton’, which glows brightly, even on the dullest of winter days.
Evergreen trees and shrubs provide substantial structure to the borders and a backdrop against which the coloured stems stand out. Conifers are used to good effect in the Winter Walk, especially the cryptomerias, whose feathery foliage shimmers as the mist retreats on a bright November morning. Russell explains that they also change colour with the weather: “In a wet summer, they are bright green; if it gets really dry, they become purply, and in winter, they get lovely bronze tones on the foliage.” The only species, Cryptomeria japonica, grows in Japan and China and is too large for most gardens, but cultivars are available in a range of sizes. At one
end of the walk, the bronze-tinged foliage of a group of three Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ stand just over 6ft (2m) tall, and although slow growing, can eventually reach 20-26ft (6-8m). Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Compacta’ will stay much smaller, forming a medium-sized shrub, while for the smallest gardens, ‘Mushroom’ and ‘Vilmoriniana’ are dwarf varieties, reaching 1-5ft (0.3-1.5m) in 10 years, depending on the growing conditions. A recently planted Himalayan pine, Pinus wallichiana ‘Zebrina’, makes an elegant winter specimen, with long, drooping needles. Ultimately reaching 32ft (10m), this could eventually outgrow most gardens, but for smaller spaces, varieties of the mountain pine, Pinus mugo, are invaluable structural plants for winter, especially the dwarf varieties. Russell has included Pinus mugo ‘Winter Gold’ for its golden-yellow colour, which intensifies during the winter. Smaller evergreens along the walk include Hebe pinguifolia ‘Sutherlandii’, which is reliably hardy in North Yorkshire, and Hebe ochracea ‘James Stirling’, a variety whose tiny, close-packed leaves become golden in winter. While most heathers require acid soil, varieties of Erica x darleyensis are less demanding and cope well with neutral conditions. Valued for their long flowering season, these tough little plants come into bloom in November at Harlow Carr and
continue through to April. They are ideal plants for containers, especially in gardens with limey soil.
Shape and detail
Winter is also the time to enjoy the pattern of branches and twigs on deciduous trees, and their distinctive silhouettes. The cascading branches of a tall weeping beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’, contrast markedly with the shorter and wide-spreading boughs of Persian ironwood, Parrotia persica. Its peeling bark and spidery red flowers sit on the branches from late winter. More suitable for smaller gardens is the paperbark maple, Acer griseum. As well as having rich autumn colour, this slow-growing tree makes a striking winter feature, with its cinnamon-coloured peeling bark. By the end of December, there will be surprisingly few berries along the Winter Walk. The birds, for whom Harlow Carr is a haven, will have voraciously stripped them away. Their absence, however, is proof of what nature intended, having attracted birds, which then disperse the seeds. Many of the berries are produced by varieties of sorbus, relatives of the native rowan, including Sorbus pseudohupehensis ‘Pink Pagoda’, which produces a generous crop of rose-pink berries in autumn. Sorbus commixta ‘Ravensbill’ bears orange fruit in autumn, but is named for the long, black, curved buds which create an intriguing feature in the winter. Midpoint along the walk, a sturdy oak, Quercus castaneifolia ‘Green Spire’, standing long before the winter project was conceived, provides an impressive centrepiece. Clipped yew hedges, suggesting the movement of waves, encircle the tree, lending an air of formality. A wooden seat around the trunk provides a welcoming place to rest awhile and take in the colours, textures and scents of the garden.
Waves of fragrance
Winter scent can prove elusive, but is all the more welcome when it catches visitors by surprise. With its large pinnate,
“When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold” William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet 73’
evergreen leaves and long racemes of cheerful, fragrant yellow flowers from December onwards, mahonia is a stalwart of the winter garden. In the Winter Walk, Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ is one of the best for fragrance, as is the older variety, Mahonia japonica Bealei Group, with a perfume which is reminiscent of lily-of-the-valley. Some of the best loved shrubs for seasonal scent are the daphnes, especially the popular Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’. Its deep pink buds open to paler flowers, with a heady perfume. Russell has been adding more varieties, including white-flowered Daphne bholua ‘Cobhay Snow’. He has planted them in groups of threes at intervals, so that their smell hangs in the air along the entire length of the walk. Beneath the trees and shrubs, herbaceous perennials, grasses and bulbs provide foliage and flowers to complete the colour-rich picture and provide examples of planting combinations that visitors can copy at home. The large leathery leaves of bergenia ‘Abendglocken’, or evening bells, turn burgundy in winter and look good planted beneath coloured stems, anchoring them to the earth. Soft brown leaves of the ornamental grass Hakonechloa macra are combined with papery white seedheads of honesty, Lunaria annua, and the dark maroon stems of Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’. For a shimmering silvery effect, Santolina chamaecyparissus, cotton lavender, is planted at the base of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, the whitest of the birches. The compact grass Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Kitten’ adds contrasting form and movement. The Winter Walk aims to uplift and inspire visitors during the latter months, showing that gardens need not be dull, despite the harshness of the season. A wealth of plants bring colour, texture and perfume through the coldest and shortest of days, and it would be a shame to miss them.
Woodland Winter Walk Oak seat Lake ›
A circular bench around the trunk of an oak provides a place to take in the garden views, sheltered by neat yew hedges.
The dynamic copper-coloured berries of rowan ‘Copper Kettle’ lift a border at Harlow Carr.
Flat and ruddy bergenia ground cover among spiky gold cornus.
The bushy heads of Euphorbia characias wulfenii and clumps of Hebe ochracea ‘James Stirling’, pink-flowered Erica carnea ‘Ann Sparkes’ and Pinus mugo add softness around a paper bark acer.
Polished red leaves of fragrant Mahonia bealei.