How do you feel about your garden in winter? If you look out of the window and find it dreary, uninteresting – a bit mournful, even – it’s probably because it lacks structure.
Good structure is a really important component of successful garden design, and comes in a number of forms. The first, and probably the most important, is evergreen trees and shrubs. The second is hard landscaping – the paths, patios, walls and fences that connect and enclose the garden. The third is less permanent features such as arches, bird baths, pots, urns and statues.
When we moved to our London terrace, it was essentially a long strip of grass on two levels, divided by a retaining brick wall and a few steps. The trees and shrubs poked out of a scrubby lawn, planted to hug the fences on either side. The result was a rather uninspiring space where all the height was concentrated at the sides of the garden, pretty much all of it visible at a glance from the back door.
The same garden but with a bit more structure
If your garden is similar in terms of interest, winter is the time to start making plans to change this. The majority of plants are in their dormant period now, so you can see what’s what and where the ‘bones’ of the garden need strengthening or realigning.
Grab a pen and notebook and take stock of your evergreens first. They’re the backbone of a garden and, while you may not give them much thought in summer, in winter they’re essential. When I studied garden design, the first thing they taught us was that when designing a planting plan, two-thirds of all shrubs and trees should be evergreen. At the time I was sceptical, but it’s a rule I’ve made a big effort to stick to, in my own garden and when designing for clients. It’s not easy; in fact, it’s a constant struggle not to get distracted by foliage and flower colour. But it really works. Be bold with evergreens. They bring year-round colour, interest and form.
The shape of your evergreens is important. Most of mine are softly domed. That’s because I want my garden to make me feel calm. Rounded shrubs such as choisya, box or ilex balls, and hebes create a soothing, tranquil feel. They also bring a sense of security and containment. The repetition of similar plant forms within the garden – domes, balls, fans or uprights – creates harmony, too.
But then you have to break the rules. Too much of a good thing can be boring, so add other complementary forms for interest. A columnar yew among a group of hummocked box, for example, is a winning combination. Tall, narrow shrubs such as Italian cypress and rock mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum 'Skyrocket') are assertive, acting like exclamation marks in a garden and draw in the eye. Or use them in groups of three for a focal point that’s a little less shouty.
Evergreens with strong, bold shapes are transformational, and will add drama and excitement, especially when combined with large spiky leaves. They're the basis for an architectural, sculptural garden. Think yukkas, phormiums and mahonias.
There are plenty of evergreen climbers worth planting, too. Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is my favourite – all the scent and dainty white flowers of the classic summer jasmine, but with big glossy green leaves that bronze up nicely in autumn. It copes well in shade, too.
But what about those awful dank, dark Edwardian shrubberies, you cry. Too many rhododendrons and viburnums will certainly overpower a garden. As will cherry laurels. They’re overbearing and brutish. Glossy deep green leaves brighten up a winter garden, but choose carefully, and make sure you vary the size, or texture, of the leaf. So instead of cherry laurel in a shady corner, go for something like Sarcococca hookeriana instead. It’s equally tolerant of deep shade but has small, shiny mid-green leaves, the stems awash with hugely fragrant feathery ivory flowers in winter.
Getting structure right in your garden is about learning to think about evergreens in a different way. They’re far from boring; a winter garden without them is sparse, uninviting and dull. Throw in a few handfuls of evergreens, planted with balance and harmony, and you have a garden with that will invite you in, even through the darkest days of winter.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer