In many ways winter is my favourite time in the garden. In spring or summer I’m too dazzled by what’s going on or too overwhelmed by tasks to take it all in. Early in the year the garden is stripped back to its bones and I can see it with clarity.
I seem to understand it most at this point. I can truly get the measure of it, walking around and feeling my way I can see where the proportions have lost their balance. Shrubs whose straggly growth might be tolerated in the dizzy heights of summer are revealed as scruffs that need taking in hand.
Last Sunday I spent 3hrs taming an escalliona that had become rampant, completely overgrown it had lost its shape, form and vigor. I lopped a good 2m off in all directions, giving it light, air and shape.
I should have tackled it long ago. Even shorn back to bare wood, in rounded, bare limbed silhouette, it’s a better contributor to the garden.
It will take a while before it greens up but the scale is now balanced again in that area of the garden and I feel assured that all plants, including the escalliona will be happier for this radical prune.
Shrubs (though the escalliona had really become more of a tree) are incredibly important to all gardens and in recent years I’ve been moving towards a greater understanding of exactly of how they contribute, where to place them and the role they perform throughout the seasons.
It would be fair to say I’ve been having a shrub moment.
Here are a few I’ve been swooning over.
Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’
I first fell for the mock orange when I walked into the garden at Villa Augustus in the Netherlands, the scent was almost physically present, a dizzying, heady perfume that sent me into a sensory spin. I hunted out its source with the aid of one of the garden volunteers, though she wasn’t able to confirm the exact philadelphus. They’re not much to look at for most of the year but in flower it’s one big bang.
I like the smaller Belle Etoile because it sits happily in a border without taking up too much room when it’s not going off like a rocket. It also has dark nut brown stems that have appeal.
This show stopping little shrub caused a bit of a stir in the KLC Garden Design student community a few weeks back when a fellow student posted a stunning pic on the Facebook page. It reminded me what a glorious burst of autumnal colour it is, raspberry crush and sunsets. It needs shelter to flourish, a couple of people commented that their Nandina’s had perished in exposed positions but if it like its home it will flower and produce enormous flumes of berries. Best planted where it can be appreciated backlit by low sunlight.
H 60cm S 45cm. Moist but well drained soil. Frost hardy, needs winter protection. Full Sun/Pt Shade.
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’
I love purple leaved plants they add depth to the garden and draw the eye. I have a cotinus coggygria royal purple that I love but it has suffered in its current position due to boys and footballs. I think this plant could work similar magic but year round. It can be clipped into lovely balls and its small dense growth would no doubt weather footballs better than the slender limbs of cotinus. Leaves grow in green and turn dark bruised purple.
H 60cm S 60cm. Sun well drained soil. Fully hardy. Full Sun/Pt Shade. Flowers but unreliably and it’s all about the foliage.
There are a huge number of Daphnes, some deciduous flowering on bare branches in the heart of winter. Daphne odora is evergreen, plump and round in habit, growing to a height of just over one metre, it flowers in late winter and early spring, producing little orbs of white, pink edged flowers with heavenly scent.
H 1.5m S 1.5cm. Mod fertile/well-drained. Full Sun/Pt Shade.
Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Eva’
The dark leaved ornamental elders are among my favourite of all shrubs. I remember coming across one in the gardens at Wormistoune House. It was planted amongst tall spindles of teasel – a lovely striking planting combination, depth, glamour, texture and wildness.
I can’t really say why my garden remains sambucus free, I do find it hard to choose between sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla ‘Eva’ which has finely dissected leaves and ‘Gerda’ which has even more intensely dark leaves, slightly larger.
The best foliage is achieved by cutting back hard every year but as it flowers on old wood the foliage comes at a cost – no flowers. Still, you can always cut back some stems and leave some old wood to flower. H 3m S 3m. But easily kept in check by pruning. Full sun/pt shade – foliage can turn green in too much shade. Moderately fertile, humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil. Flowers followed by dark berries adored by songbirds. Fully hardy.