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

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: He­len Hayes Pho­tog­ra­phy: An­drea Jones

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.

Blaz­ing hues

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.

Green back­drop

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.

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