The January garden rarely sleeps. It continues to draw itself back, the skeletons that do not have the stamina already toppled, the fallen foliage and fleshy limbs pulled back to earth by the worms. It is an endlessly fascinating watch, observing this cycle and it changes weekly. Today it is the Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Tanna’ which caught my eye, collapsed and whorled against the dirt like monochrome Catherine wheels. Close by the silvery-grey willow leaves are strewn under branches that are already plump with catkin. The old and the new starkly side by side.
Every day there is more transparency, the ground plane becoming visible again where just a month ago your eye was held still in the remains of the last growing season. The glossy tussocks of deschampsia reveal their winter green, marching amongst their now naked companions. Vernonia and thalictrum towering overhead and standing tall and well as skeletons, but better for an undercurrent of foliage. The plants that remain wintergreen are clear to see. Waldstenia ternata proving its worth as it shimmies amongst buff miscanthus and flows down the steps by the Milking Barn. Its evergreen carpet is broken by cyclamen with a push of marbled foliage and the first of the Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussey’ and the Bergenia purpurascens ‘Irish Crimson’ which have now coloured, their ox-blood leaves burnished and light reflecting.
The layering in a perennial garden and under deciduous shrubs is more important than ever in the winter and where the soil is left open to the elements you can see that it is looking exposed and battered. My aim in time is for the greater majority of the garden to be cushioned throughout with plants that are happy to live in the understorey, much as the primroses and violets do in the shadow of the hedgerows. I have taken their lead and brought them into the garden. The violets are more than happy to disappear amongst the summer froth of Erigeron, but as soon as winter hits they come into their own again with evergreen foliage and the perfume of flower as soon as the weather warms. These shade-loving groundcovers also make a stable environment for groupings of bulbs which you can leave there undisturbed and safe from cultivation.
The reveal of plants that you haven’t seen since the cover of summer becomes a new point of interest. Epimedium sulphureum, so wonderfully reliable in the shadows and Heuchera villosa var macrorhiza with its emerald, light-absorbing leaves. I have started to group erythronium amongst the heuchera for the sanctuary of its long-lived cover, in the hope that the shadow of summer perennials that rise in turn above them will be enough to cool the Dog’s Tooth Violets on our sunny slopes. I have done much the same under the mulberry, where the pool of spotted Pulmonaria saccharata ‘The Leopard’ is somewhere I look onto and enjoy for now, but also for the prospect that is held there for the spring.
I leave the whorls of hellebore foliage until the very last minute before cutting back, enjoying their leatheriness and the hunkered-down feeling the Lenten Roses bring to a garden. Though I know it is ‘good practice’ and easier to cut away old foliage before the flowers start to rise, the sense of loss is greater than the inconvenience of removing the leaves once the flowers push and have momentum. I am pairing the Hellebores with Corydalis ochroleuca in the shade and Viola riviniana ‘Purpurea’ where there is the winter sunshine the violet needs to keep the foliage coloured strongly purple.
The sun is important to some winter greens and, where the planting is not layered to such a degree, they play an equally important role. The felted silver of Ballota pseudodictamnus and neatly pruned cushions of lavender are the making of the herb garden in the winter. On the damp days, when there is moisture in the air, the Salvia candelabrum hunkered against the trough (main image) shimmers with an outline marked by a million droplets of water.
The giant fennels take this winter season to make their growth, pushing dangerously yet fearlessly against the tide it seems. Last February snow took its toll, crushing and blackening their finely-spun nets and making me wince when I looked at them until they regrew. For now, however, their fresh verdance is welcome. Life in the green and a good feeling with it.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 11 January 2020