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Cornucopia - Winter Gardening – Inspiration from Janet Cropley

Winter Gardening – Inspiration from Janet Cropley
Cherry Baker

In March 2013, thirteen of us Hardy Planters gathered at Hill Grounds at Evenly for a ‘hands-on’ talk on Winter Gardening by Janet Cropley. We had all bid for a place to hear the talk at the Hardy Plant Society Fundraising Auction the autumn before - Janet had kindly offered to do this as one of the lots and put on a wonderfully hospitable and entertaining talk with a tour in her own garden.

It was a cold but beautifully bright day in March and on arrival we were able to smell before we saw and enjoyed some beautiful arrangements that Janet had created from flowers picked fresh from her garden the night before.

Janet’s slide show and talk encompassed trees, shrubs and bulbs that are all at their best in winter and her definition of this period was loosely the months from October to March. Everything she talked about, she had grown herself at some time and, having told us that she had trained at the botanical gardens in Cambridge, she strongly recommended that anybody interested should visit their fabulous winter garden for inspiration and enjoyment.

Her themes of winter gardening were structure, colour (both bark and foliage, flowers and berries) and scent. Our morning in Hill Grounds was so packed with wonderful facts and inspiration that I can only reflect a few of her ideas and suggestions.

To start with a structural aspect, bark, its colour and texture is a very important component of winter gardens. It never seems to suffer unlike autumn leaf colour which can vary from year to year. Betula utilis var. jacquemontii is one to lift the heart in a garden on an otherwise dull day with its silvery trunk and ragged bark. Janet suggested pressure washing to ensure a sparkling clean colour! Much discussion followed as to whether or not to peel off the ragged bits to reveal the satin bark underneath. Even more spectacular at this time of year and less often seen, Janet suggested we go to Oxford Botanical Gardens to see the pink-bloomed bark of the Chinese red birch (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis). The peeling edges on the trunk display golden edges and the effect is a tapestry of grey-pink, cream and cinnamon-brown.

No gardener can fail to picture the Tibetan cherry Prunus serrula when thinking of winter bark. This tree provides a magnificent backdrop with its ‘touchable’ polished copper bark. Janet advised that when you buy you should make sure that it has been carefully pruned in the nursery so that there is nothing unsightly on the stem. She advised, when established in your garden, to peel back the bark and polish it for a fabulous effect.

Dogwoods are fantastic for their winter stem colour – Cornus alba 'Aurea' is a white variety – a wonderfully mellow colour with the young growth. Cornus alba 'Sibirica' has intensely coloured bark and should be pruned to maximise its colour. Cornus mas, Janet’s own favourite, is a close cousin to the dogwoods, has late winter flowers and small fruits which the birds love (and she says we can eat them.....) and its autumn foliage is red tinged. It’s very easy going and accommodating about its situation in the garden although it can grow into a very large shrub.

Evergreens are invaluable in winter. Hollies are a classic choice, a British native, and there are many of them, some hardier than others. Their names though are often really misleading as to planting appropriate plants to produce berries. Ilex x altaclerensis 'Golden King', despite its name is a female holly which will produce a good crop of slightly brownish red berries. Its foliage with wide bright yellow margins makes it one of the most colourful of all winter garden shrubs. It is vigorous, but easily clipped and managed. I. aquifolium 'Silver Queen', on the other hand is a male and will produce nothing more than dark green and cream leaves and small white flowers.

Some berries last, some don’t do so well, but red is what the birds go for first of all so those tend to disappear quickest. Many of the common cotoneaster varieties have berries which disappear early but Cotoneaster 'Exburiensis' or C. 'Rothschildianus' are both good and have yellow berries, which remain on the shrub for some time.

One cannot possibly leave out magnolias. If you have the space and, even better, a wall, Magnolia grandiflora provides a beautiful round foliage plant with glossy oblong evergreen leaves all winter, then the added delight later in the year of its deliciously fragrant creamy white flowers the size of a bowl. However the enchanting starry white flowers of M. stellata which are beautifully scented and very early are always threatened by frost. If you can, Janet suggested, throw strawberry netting over your magnolia, this will break down degrees of frost if cold really threatens. It is totally lime tolerant unlike many magnolias.

Evergreen Mahonia japonica has terrific and statuesque foliage in winter with a bonus of a lily of the valley scent on its flowers. Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun' was recommended – it flowers in November and will live up to its name in a shady part of the garden where its multiple long yellow plumes seem to catch the light. The young foliage is beautiful around May although the downside of this variety is that there is little or no scent.

Janet reminded us to place plants which produce scent near to your house or a regular path to enjoy them best. The scent from sarcococca’s flowers remind one of honey. Sarcococca confusa has white flowers which tend to be hidden behind the leaves and is the Christmas Box. Sarcococca hookeriana is more delicate and will grow in dry shade and its unmissable scent is the reason its common name is sweet box. It produces black berries after flowering and will self seed. Janet recommended as her favourite Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis. This will even work as a hedge and is worth considering as an alternative to box.

Hamamellis mollis, the indispensible witch hazel, needs neutral acidic soil. It needs moisture and humus. These shrubs are really striking with their beautiful fragrance and wonderfully ‘stringy’ flowers in orange, red or yellow. However, they are all pretty substantial and many gardens will not find enough space for more than one.

The viburnum family is excellent value at this time of year. Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' is widely grown and a good plant. Its heavily scented flowers on its woody leafless stems start pink and fade to white appearing after Christmas and they seem weatherproof. Other good viburnums are V. opulus 'Xanthocarpum', a cultivar of the guelder rose, a British native, which bears bright yellow flowers. V. tinus is a perfect backdrop or even hedge for a garden but unfortunately both these last two viburnums are particularly attractive to the destructive activities of the viburnum beetle, so choose carefully. V. farreri (used to be V. fragrans) is another large upright shrub bearing flowers with good scent.

Daphnes have a reputation for being tricky to grow as they suffer from a number of disorders and diseases which can lead to sudden die-back or yellow foliage. However, such is the quality of their beautiful and intensely fragrant blooms, produced in winter and spring, that they are worth a bit of effort. They are best planted at the front of borders where it is easy to enjoy their heady fragrance. Grow Daphne odora, the smallest of the daphnes, very near the house as its perfume is excellent. You will often smell it before you see it! However, a word of warning - be vigilant about checking your source of obtaining these shrubs so as not to import the rampant daphne virus into your garden.

For an interesting texture at this time of year, consider Garrya elliptica. 'James Roof' is particularly spectacular and despite how you see it commonly grown, Janet assured us, it does not really need a wall. You should get a male one for its stunning drooping grey-green catkins, up to 20 cms long, although the females do have interesting seedpods.

Janet mentioned so many lovely plants it is impossible to go into all the details. Among the evergreens were Elaeagnus x ebbingei 'Limelight' which has wonderful variegated leaves and is worth cultivating despite relatively insignificant flowers in November/December. Osmanthus is also a very good evergreen tree and skimmias have such wonderful perfume. So many ideas and suggestions!

Our anticipation built towards the tour of Janet’s garden in the crisp spring sunshine where we were able to see, touch and smell many of the plants that we had been discussing. We saw so much to enjoy and inspire us, not only shrubs but flowers too including drifts of various snowdrops including a lovely group of a galanthus called 'Ruth' named specially for a local lady. Tulipa turkestanica, the first of the tulips, had just come out a day or so earlier. The garden was an illustration of what can be enjoyed at this time of year.

Once back in the house, refreshed with coffee, Janet focussed on winter bulbs, corms and tubers or rhizomes which produce such delightful flowers in winter and early spring But first our attention was drawn to Arum italicum 'Pictum' which has very special, large, arrow-shaped and glossy leaves at this time of year. Janet described this as the winter hosta! It will survive a good frosting and can grow in deepest shade so is great for underplanting. It even throws up showy berries which are much loved by blackbirds but, for the rest of us, poisonous.

There are too many gorgeous spring flowers to list here but most of us love Anemone blanda in its various varieties and Janet said that 'White Splendour' is particularly good. I hadn’t known before that Anemone nemorosa is supposed to indicate ancient woodland if found in the wild. There are lots of different forms of it but when the flowers become double, they lose the ability to set seed.

Chionodoxa sardensis is one of Janet’s favourite chionodoxas, she described it as an intense sky blue resembling a big blue puddle at the bottom of the garden. Other blue spring flowers include scilla, puschkinia, many anemones, some crocus, and the intense but so brief in flower purply blue of dwarf iris. As a different iris effect, Janet suggested (and showed us) Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin' which stands out from the rest with its delicate and unusual pale blue and yellow colouring. It is resilient, hardy and will spread to form clumps.

Janet reminded us that however good a plant, where you position it and what its companions are can often intensify (or sometimes nullify) its effectiveness. Some of her suggestions are to plant Anemone ranunculoides, the smaller buttercup anemone, with brunnera or hostas. An added bonus is that as it is gone by May you can safely plant geraniums on top! You should try growing crocus through low growing rock roses. If you plant groups of hellebores of varying colours and patterns you can highlight and enhance their differences and make you look closer at them. Cyclamen makes a great show underplanting many shrubs and the corm is very hardy. If bought in the green you can often keep the costs down and you will have the advantage of seeing which have the best foliage too. I would not have thought of underplanting winter willows which have wonderfully rich weatherproof stem colour with heathers.....

Janet’s talk was not only full of information but was very entertaining and amusing - much more so than this article reflects! Everything was related to shrubs and plants but put into context within extravagantly diverse topics as Greek legends, family history, country lore and wildlife. In Janet’s garden, we saw colour, structure and scent in abundance - illustrating the topic of her talk.

First published in the Bucks & Oxon Group Newsletter Spring 2014
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 35.
© Copyright for this article: Cherry Baker

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2015. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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