This very weekend in 2010 we came to visit Hillside for the first time. We walked down the north-facing slope where our friends live on the other side of the valley, crossed the stream in the woods that runs the boundary and strode up the hill into the long shadows of the poplars. When we reached the house and its assemblage of makeshift outhouses, we turned around, faced into sunshine and surveyed our potential prospect. The uninterrupted view up and down the valley and fertile ground that in our minds eye represented dreams of being part of somewhere.
It was a very different place back then, with its runs of barbed wire bringing the grazing to the very foot of the buildings. Bleak and exposed without any protection if you took it at face value, but already we carried the dream that one day the open slopes would carry orchards and a garden would nestle the buildings. We took five years to plan how we’d go about making change and in this time we ruminated. Noting where the light fell and the wind didn’t blow and where the shelter might afford us a warm corner in the sun or a cool one in the shade. I knew immediately that the garden should feel subservient to the view and to be part of it, but it was important that it allowed us to hunker into the slopes. The garden would provide us a sanctuary and a little sensuality as a counterpoint to the exposure.
What we learned very quickly is that the still places are few and far between. In summer a breeze starts to move through the valley at about 9 a.m., but interestingly, when it isn’t stormy, the winter provides us our stillest weather. Increasingly I’ve grown to love this season and have learned to plan for it as a draw to keep us outside and to map the weeks passing. Where we need shrubs for their plumpness, cushioning and the microclimate they provide in this open position, the greater percentage provide us winter perfume. The unseen element, but often the most evocative and one, which we are likely to find on a still day in February.
Five years since we planted the garden and the woody plants are now beginning to provide volume. Enough heft to create their own little microclimates, with shade for companions under their skirts and to their leeward side. Five years is a turning point in a new garden, when the shrubs establish their presence and for the perfumed amongst them to reach a quantum mass and influence. An invisible space until you find it on a warm February day, but one that might draw you from some distance or catch you completely unaware when you move into its orbit.
Placing perfume is all important and I have planted several groups of Winter Box in the still places to catch you unawares and ensure you meet its ambush. Where we park the car, in the lee of the Milking Barn and in repeat so that you have the opportunity of meeting it more than once as you move through the garden. Sarcococca ruscifolia ‘Dragon’s Gate’ is a small leaved form and a favourite and one that slowly forms an evergreen weight where you need it. When I expand into a new area I’m developing as a little woodland garden I’ll be using the smaller growing S. hookeriana var. humilis and the arching S. hookeriana var. digyna for they are good in deciduous shade and come to the fore in the winter for being evergreen.
The Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Gingerbread’ sits alongside the Milking Barn (main image) where it has morning shade and shelter from cold easterlies. Witch hazel hate to dry out in summer or be too much out in the open, but this niche works well as a substitute for their preferred habitat on the edge of woodland. It is planted beside the path and near the door of the tool shed so that we engage with it daily and as it is still just a third of the size and influence it will have eventually, its zesty perfume will only get better.
The same principle applies to the Lonicera fragrantissima, which is placed by the opening to the end of the barns. Upwind so that the westerlies bring it into the barns and nearby the compost heaps which we visit regularly. This rough and ready shrub is a complete toughie, and though it does not have the finesse of the witch hazel, it’s perfume is just as special. Lighter and not heady like it’s summer cousins, but refreshing on cold air. The first flowers were with us for Christmas and it will go on producing intermittently until the leaves start unfurling in March. I have it underplanted with a good form of our native violet, which can cope amongst its hungry roots and summer shadow. It has just started to flower and will pick up when the honeysuckle finishes.
Where the shrubby honeysuckle is best on the periphery and its everyday feeling in summer can go unnoticed, the wintersweet deserves to be planted at close quarters. Hailing from China, where it is an auspicious member of a reduced palette in the gardens there, Chimonanthus praecox is often placed by doorways and openings so that its spicy perfume does not go unnoticed. Though it will grow happily in the open in this country, the shelter of a warm wall will help to ripen the flowering wood. We have it here facing west, to catch the afternoon sun and by the door to the Milking Barn so that you experience it in close proximity. Fat, rounded buds are already visible in late autumn. It holds on to long strappy foliage until early January, when you can do a stocktake of buds on branches.
Chimonanthus can take a while to settle down before flowering freely, so I made the investment of purchasing a sizeable shrub from Junker’s Nursery to buy time. Planted six years ago now, it has already doubled in size and though we are not quite at the point where we can pick a whole limb, there is enough now to bring posies into the house. A sprig will perfume a room with its delicious spiciness and remind you that there is movement in February, that winter is not endless and that a wait is worth it for such pleasures.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 11 February 2023