Perhaps the best present I was given for Christmas was a year’s membership to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). So when the fat welcome pack arrived, shiny and full of promise, the front a gorgeous full-bleed photo of a gateway in a wall, bricks clothed in sugar-pink climbing roses and pale violet wisteria, it set me off longing for spring. It’s what gardeners do in January. We stare longingly at our soggy patches of lawn and bare trees, eyes scouring the earth for the tender spear of a spring bulb or the plump purple protuberance of a leaf bud on a naked branch.
But, wait! It’s easy to forget there are gardens that bring joy in winter, too! And one of them is RHS Wisley in Surrey. It’s one thing to admire a thicket of Midwinter Fire cornus in the park, stems like embers in the low winter sun. Quite another to take yourself off to one of the biggest and best-known gardens in the UK and see how they do winter.
And they do it very well indeed. With professional aplomb. Sun was forecast for our Sunday foray – but we hardly needed it. The colour from Wisley’s winter planting is staggering. The dedicated Winter Walk, a 45-minute meander along marked paths through woodland, alongside the great Glasshouse, flanking borders and beside a lake, was planted up seven years ago. Now, at full maturity it’s an absolute delight.
The first thing that hits you is the scent. Great billowing wafts – a fabulous sensual assault after days of dank grey gloom – from pretty pink and white daphnes planted thickly alongside the main path. There are more varieties then I knew existed, among them Daphne bholua ‘Hazel Edwards’, which I picked out as my favourite. It’s pure-white star-shaped wax-like flowers pop against the deep green evergreen leaves.
Snowy white Daphne bholua ‘Hazel Edwards’
Then come thickets of witch hazel, their perfume spicy and exotic. The flowers are spidery and intriguing; they cling close to the branch, in shades of gold, copper and amber. These are elegant shrubs (or are they small trees?), their shape wide and almost horizontal, with spreading, reaching branches. Here we’re at the woodland’s edge and among the leaf litter are hellebores, hundreds of them, in shades of white and cream, with pale green centres. The white against deep earthy brown is a triumph of nature.
Witch hazels and hellebores
Up ahead, colour from a thicket of ghostly white silver birch and a massed planting of cornus draws us on towards the Glasshouse, which is surrounded by low hedges of bright green Sarcococca in full flower. These are cleverly planted against a backdrop of buff grasses and clipped hornbeam hedging. Again, we stand and draw in deep breaths of the Sarcococca’s fresh, lemony scent.
Edgworthia chrysantha is one of the headliners in this winter programme. The next showstopping scene is 100-plus of these delicate-looking Chinese shrubs filling a border backed with lush green pines, their strange pale-ash downturned buds just about to come into flower. The effect is ethereal and utterly gorgeous. A little further, more bright cornus set against zingy golden conifers is an inspired partnership. As is a combination of neatly rounded low Pinus mugo planted with hummocks of pale yellow carex and deep plum hellebores. And then there’s a mass of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’, the pale lemon yellow one. If I had the space in my garden, this is the bit I’d copy. There must be 40 or 50 of the witch hazels, a paperbark maple (Acer griseum) at the centre, and the scent is knockout.
Edgworthias; Pingus mugo, grasses and hellebores; Acer griseum and Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’
But perhaps the star of the show is the lake and the planting around it. The colour palette is deep mahogany (Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’), acid green (dwarf pines such as Pinus mugo Jalubi), gold (grasses) and white, from drifts of snowdrops. Totally uplifting.
The lake at Wisley
This is just a taste of what we saw at Wisley last weekend, but there was a whole lot more: colour and texture from tree bark, bright early spring bulbs such as sky-blue Iris reticulata and the very first of the brave golden daffodils. The dramatic arching bleached white stems of Rubus cockburnianus, great swathes of pink and white heather, skimmias, viburnums and more… We came back from Wisley refreshed, inspired and ready to take on the rest of winter.
3 more winter gardens to visit
If you can’t make it to Wisley, try:
- Forde Abbey and Gardens, Chard, Somerset. It’s known for its statues and cascade of lakes, and there’s a great show of Cyclamen coum in late winter.
- Anglesey Abbey Winter Gardens, Lode, Cambridge. The silver birch copse is legendary.
- Rousham Park House and Garden, Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire. Uncommercial and unspoilt (there’s no shop or tea room!), highlights of this William Kent garden include a parterre and pigeon house, walled garden, statues and temples.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer