Winter garden joy

Award-winning garden designer Geoff Stonebanks helps find joy in the winter garden and shows how garden sculpture can add much interest.

Mist gives the garden a mysterious air.
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It is sometimes very difficult to maintain interest and joy in your garden through the dark winter months but it is possible, without necessarily requiring you to get out there and actually do anything when the weather is at its worst.

I live close to the sea so I have always got a great view out across the front beach garden, whatever the time of year. Even murky days can bring much joy. While there may not be much natural colour on show, just a few dazzling hellebores in flower and all the marine pieces; buoys and lobster pots do add some much-needed focal points to the eerie, frosty scene.

Frosty accents

The whole picture is greatly enhanced when we get heavy frosts or very occasionally snow. The way the frost clings to the wooden groynes and the lobster pot frames gives the whole garden a new lease of life.  We’ve lived here now since 2004 and only ever seen three real falls of snow. It is therefore all the more magical when it happens. The sculpture I have throughout the garden, front and back, is mainly rusted metal and the snow just gives it another dimension. It looks equally amazing settled on the majestic grass heads too. The Miscanthus sinensis ‘Arabesque’ which I have in a large container at the top of the garden looks particularly fabulous in frost and snow.

We don’t see snow much, but when we do, it transforms the garden.

The value of sculpture

I find that using sculptures of all sizes and shapes throughout the garden, both summer and winter, helps keep it looking good. There are many flower shaped ones, which really come alive with a light coating of frost on a winter morning. The arches with their chains and brackets also take on a magical look too. And love them or hate them, I’ve got over 20 Victorian gnomes in the back garden and they all look great with a light dusting of snow as well. 

Garden structure

Frost and snow aside, the thing that I think makes a garden look good through the winter is one that has a good solid structure to it, be that hard landscaping or neatly trimmed hedges and shrubs. I’m very lucky, my desk is in a loft conversion overlooking the back garden, so this is the view I see every day. Trimming the hedges, shrubs and ensuring the basic structure of the garden is there all of the time is very important.

Ferns make a superb foliar foil to emerging spring bulbs

On the foliage front I’ve found that ferns and grasses make excellent plants to have in the garden to enhance the winter look.  Many ferns die back in winter to unfurl new fronds in spring, but the evergreen types such as polypodiums, aspleniums and dryopteris all hold their foliage throughout the winter, adding texture and body to a border. These ferns make a superb foliar foil to emerging spring bulbs. I’ve got quite a few across the garden and love them all.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

On the grasses front, two of my favourites look good all through the winter months.  If your taste runs to the gothic, the dramatic leaves of Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ are as black as any foliage in the plant world, and underplanted with snowdrops it makes a rare monochromatic display. It’s not strictly a grass, but it has grassy leaves and produces racemes of small bell-shaped white or mauve flowers on leafless stems in summer, followed by glossy black berries around Christmas too. My personal grassy favourite though is Stipa tenuissima, or the pony tails grass which manages to look good throughout the year. And… if all else fails you can cheat a bit by buying pots of flowering bulbs such as snowdrops, hyacinths and crocuses from garden centres and sinking into the ground so they look as though they’re growing in the border. Enjoy!

Geoff Stonebanks

About Geoff Stonebanks

Geoff Stonebanks lives in Bishopstone, near Seaford in East Sussex and spends all his time gardening and fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. Using his multi award-winning garden - Driftwood - he has raised over £114,000 for various charities in 8 years, £66,000 of that for Macmillan. The garden, which first opened to the public in 2009 has featured on BBC2 Gardeners' World, Good Morning Britain and in many national and local media publications. In his spare time, Geoff is also the National Garden Scheme's Social Media & Publicity Chair as well as an Assistant County Organiser & Publicity Officer in East & Mid Sussex.
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