January 2020 – Winter was once the final frontier for garden folks. The cold season just meant leafless shrubs, perennials cut back to the ground, and muddy borders. Of course you could always count on holly, yew and various conifers for greenery and structure. The odd Christmas rose would bring a bit of colour until the first snowdrops popped up, along with winter aconites, followed by crocuses heralding the imminence of spring and a return to floriferous times. But mostly, in winter, gardens went into hibernation.
Not anymore. In the past couple of decades or so, gardeners and landscape designers have started thinking positively beyond flowers. In a growing number of gardens, winter now involves not only winter-flowering shrubs but also colourful barks, shapes and textures, providing a new kind of year-round interest. The Savill Garden, a self-contained area in Windsor Great Park, provides, to my mind, one of the most varied examples of this new outlook, with colours flashing from stems, twigs and grasses in unabashed exuberance.
The 14-hectare site was created in 1932 by Eric Savill, grandson of Alfred Savill, founder of the eponymous estate agents’ firm. A trained surveyor, Savill was deputy ranger at Windsor at the time. He later became director of gardens before retiring in 1970.
His plan was to carve out a section of the park to create a garden in the picturesque style. He was given an undulating area around a boggy, spring-fed hollow on the east side. When we visit in late January after a few days of rain, the ground is wet and spongy in several places. Although the original design was intended to provide interest through the seasons, it wasn’t until 2008 that work started on a specific winter trail.
It’s a sunny day, if cold and blustery, and even Dr K is quite taken by the colourful display. He even manages to correctly identify Sarcococca confusa – although this has become a bit of a personal comedy routine during our trips to winter gardens.
The usual suspects are on show. The white stems of betula utilis mingle with the smooth pale apricot trunks of betula albosinensis and with the chocolate-brown bark of another betula utilis variety.
But the Himalayan birches in the Savill Garden don’t take centre stage in the way they do in the Millennium Walk at Marks Hall or the grove at Anglesey Abbey; although there are plenty of them, their part in the overall composition is more modest.
Here, they are not planted en masse but organised in small clusters of three or five, sometimes as multi stem specimens, like this copse of chestnut-brown betula nigra in the lawn going down to the stream.
Over there, a trio of white birches ‘Silver Shadow’ stands out in a sea of Corsican hellebores dotted with winter-flowering purple rhododendron ‘Midwinter’. Another emerges out of a pool of bright green acorus gramineus interspersed with stinking hellebores.
Opposite, a prunus rufa, its dark brown bark flaking off all the way from the base of the trunk to the tip of its branches, is completely surrounded by a mass of plump ophiopogon japonicus and more Corsican hellebores.
And there’s no ignoring the rows of pollarded willows, with their fiery orange and yellow stems lighting up the banks of the stream, or the masses of red and acid-green dogwoods.
But somehow it is the ground-cover plants that really catch my eye. Ivy and bergenia – especially the Overture variety, with its broad and waxy leaves deep-red at this time of year – ensure there’s hardly a patch of bare soil around a bed of white-stemmed ornamental brambles.
On the way down to the woodland, a swathe of carex oshimensis Evergold, with its green and cream arching swords, wraps around a fragrant Daphne. Not to mention the hellebores again, planted so densely that they too become ground cover.
A bit further on the left, the soft green mop heads of ophiopogon contrast with the hairy lime-green tufts of carex Everillo, set against a curtain of maroon-red cornus alba Sibirica. “Look at us”, these attention seekers seem to say, “Look at our cool shapes and vibrant colours!”
The winter trail itself isn’t that long and it doesn’t have the same concentrated intensity of dedicated winter-interest areas such as those at Marks Hall or Anglesey Abbey. But it delivers an equally wonderful, if different, winter spectacle.
Before long one reaches the rhododendron and azalea wood. There are no blooms yet at this time of year but these sizeable shrubs, along with banks of evergreen ferns, make a significant contribution to the greenness of the woodland. This part of the garden is quite acidic and also home to a large collection of hydrangeas, whose dried flower heads stand out against the sun, like an old-fashioned sepia photograph.
The cold, however, is beginning to make us move a little faster.
Back in the open on the sunny side we don’t have as much time to linger in the rather beautiful New Zealand garden. It’s not very large but it’s a very welcoming space, with a whole variety of shapes and textures, many of them unusual in English gardens. Combined with a limited colour palette of greens, browns, bronze and golds, it’s also a lesson in resilience and adaptability. If the winter trail is inviting us to think about winter differently, then the New Zealand garden is a nudge, in the context of climate change, to start adjusting our garden aesthetics to embrace more actively some of those hardy and drought tolerant plants.