Places: Anglesey Abbey

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It often feels like the period between New Year and the end of January is a gardening void. Pre-Christmas, winter-interest shrubs and frosty scenes on greetings cards are prominent. Then once Christmas and New Year have gone, and we are well and truly fed-up with tinsel and turkey, there is a lull. At this point I am desperate to get excited about the approaching seasons, but they still feel far away.

However, a sunny cold day is the perfect chance to get outside and explore other gardens. I love to see the uncluttered bones of a design and although I miss busy summer borders, the bare stems of winter can be just as attractive. The purpose-designed Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey, just north of Cambridge, is no exception. In 1996 the modest garden was created in the 114 acres of parkland, and 20 years later it is at its peak.

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Looking at the estate map the garden looks small and narrow, especially in comparison to the rest of the vast estate. However, the Winter Garden is anything but. Measuring 20m wide by 350m long, the design is simple but maximum impact. Two long borders run the length of the walk, divided by a gently curving serpentine path – with just enough bend to obscure the view around the next corner. Trees have also been planted on the curve of the path, breaking the perspective and adding height.

Clever planting helps to make walking down the single path an enticing journey. The planting is bold, with confident blocks used to heighten the impact of winter colours, textures and scents. Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Beauty’ is planted en-masse, the fiery stems licking the edges of the path. Nearby a sea of Sarcococca is in bud, ready to fill the air with a beautiful sweet scent, while pollarded Salix erupt through the evergreen foliage.

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Varigated Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is used liberally and pruned to keep the shrub as a frothy lower layer. Under planted around winter flowering Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and contrasting against the toasted bark of Acer griseum.

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The chalky, distressed stems of Rubus have space to roam down the borders. Below the thorny arms is an array of emerging spring bulbs. Early snowdrops are upright and blooming, while daffodils are still developing; even some unseasonally early Iris’ are braving the cold. Other flowering winter gems include many forms of hellebore and the yellow ribbon-like flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Barmstedt Gold’.

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The planting scheme in the Winter Garden may be big and bold, but the combinations could easily be scaled down to suit a smaller garden or border. Even at the end of the meandering path the spectacular ghostly grove of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii could be recreated with just one specimen tree taking the focus. Thank goodness winter gardens aren’t just for Christmas.

Visited: 10 January 2016

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Searching for Spring

January .1

Clockwise from Top: Shoo-fly seed case, Camellia buds, Rhododendron bud

January can often feel like a very bleak month. The excitement of Christmas and New Year has past and the grasp of winter can really take hold. Even my pots of winter bedding seem to have given up trying to look nice. A roaring fire, cup of tea and a good gardening magazine are my comforting companions, transporting me to dry, warm days spent outside with a trowel in hand.

I always feel that as soon as the New Year begins that spring should too, but realistically it is still many weeks away. However, take a closer look at the garden and you can find spring. Not yet bursting forth in all it’s vibrant glory, just progressing steadily in the background and waiting for the right moment to take us by surprise.

As well as the first signs of spring, there are also the final hints of the previous autumn. Beautiful seed heads are a last reminder of borders overflowing with plants in summer. The lantern-shaped pendants of the Shoo-fly plant, Nicandra physalodes, looked beautiful in the winter sun. Their papery shells would be blown away if a multitude of veins weren’t holding them together.

Camellias and Rhododendrons have been quietly developing their plump flower buds all winter and clusters of catkins hang like tails from branches. Incidentally, Catkin comes from an old Dutch word katteken, meaning kitten, on account of the flowers looking like a kitten’s tail.

January .2

Clockwise from Top Left: Shoo-fly seed case, Catkins, Cyclamen leaves, Mahonia berries

The dull light of winter is repainted with a palette of dazzling yellows in spring. The delicate heads of the Mahonia are the first strokes of paint that can liven up any garden in winter. The berries that follow, first lime green then turning to deep purple, sit like a crown above the almost prehistoric looking leaves.

It was a lovely surprise to see a Primrose flowering so early in the hedgerow; a very telling sign that it has been a mild winter so far. Nothing says spring like Primroses, or in medieval Latin prima rosa, meaning ‘first rose’. Especially when they carpet a whole bank or hedgerow. Although they are frequently seen in abundance, Primroses are actually protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This means it is illegal to pick or remove a Primrose from the wild.

January .3

Clockwise from Top Left: Mahonia flower, Primerose, Winter Clematis, Winter Heather

January .4

Clockwise from Top Left: Robin Redbreast, Mahonia, Spring bulbs

The flowers of Winter Heathers seem to go on and on, creating a gorgeous blanket of lipstick shades. More subtle flowers can be found on wintering flowering Clematis, Clematis cirrhosa. The dainty bell-shaped flowers look so delicate you would think they should be growing in the cozy warmth of a greenhouse, not outside facing the harsh winter weather. Each petal has a light smattering of freckles, although some varieties having so many their petals are almost pink. It is very uplifting to see their graceful flowers in the middle of winter and will definitely keep a gardener’s spirts lifted, whilst they dream about the warmer months and patiently wait for their spring bulbs to flower.