Peter Dowdall shows you how best to enjoy the seasonal drama unfolding in the room outside.
THE sun stays low in the sky over the Northern Hemisphere during the winter and it only appears for a few short hours.
Long gone are the days of summer when the gardens were drenched with hours of unbroken sunshine and we could stay outside until late at night.
The sun now, when it does appear seems so crisp and clear, more intense in tone than the summer sunshine and I love the beautiful “pet days” of winter when we get to enjoy clear skies and that vibrant sunshine, if only for shortened days.
In the garden of course, we need to be wary of such weather for, whilst it may be lovely during the days, those self-same clear skies mean only one thing — low temperatures as soon as the sun has gone to bed. With the low temperatures comes frost.
Frost-sensitive plants will need to be taken in now if they are not already safely tucked up in their winter home such as a glasshouse or polytunnel — or for the very lucky specimens perhaps a kitchen or living room table.
Not all of our winter days are like that of course, there are some days when we may be left wondering if there is a sun up there at all, such is the thickness of the duvet of cloud keeping us warm.
But when the sun does appear, the effect can be magical in the garden. Winter sunshine illuminates plants and features in an altogether different way to its summer counterpart.
Beauty in the garden during the winter months can be more understated and subtle than during the rest of the year. Its features such as attractive bark and stems along with structure and texture which bring a garden to life during the winter.
The sunlight catching and reflecting off the stem of a mature Betula x utilis jacquemontii or more commonly referred to as the Himalayan birch, is quite spectacular. So too, the snakebark maples, Acer cappillipes.
The drama bark and stem colour and structure bring to the garden is lost during the summer months as there is so much going on to distract the eye.
Trees are fully furnished with foliage, beds are alive with the colour of annuals and perennials and the spotlight is shining straight down from above.
Now the light is more sideways in its direction and the frivolity of summer blooms are a thing of the past and thus these winter delights take centre stage.
Acer griseum, the paperbark maple, and Prunus serrula, the mahogany barked cherry, are two of my absolute favourites for their outer stem covering.
The bark of the acer curls to give the effect of paper peeling off the side and it’s not just children who need to restrain themselves from giving it a helping hand! It’s difficult to walk past one and not give in to the impulse of peeling it some more.
To do so would be damaging to the tree so do please resist the urge for bark offers the tree protection from the outside and protects the living tissue just under the surface.
The mahogany barked cherry peels also but it also looks extremely highly polished, as if someone was out earlier with the furniture polish.
The leaves give a good autumnal display and the flowers are quite attractive during early spring but this is a tree for the winter. I simply adore it at the moment, particularly when that sunlight does make an appearance.
Ornamental grasses such as miscanthus and calamagrostis bring their very definite texture to a garden. They offer a light airy presence and of course, movement.
Don’t turn up your noses at these because they are herbaceous and think wrongly that they offer nothing for the winter.
The straw-coloured stems and plumes bring a really seasonal touch and to see a planting of grasses such as these covered in a light frost in the early morning winter sunlight is as good as any summer floral display.
Remember too that many small birds will feed on the seed of these grasses and cutting them back too early will remove their food source and this too is true beauty in a garden, to see it full of life and to admire nature at work, the plants providing food for the birds who in turn will pick away at grubs and garden pests.
Every season brings it’s own charm to the garden but perhaps to see the winter beauty we may need to stop for a moment, take it all in.
Once you see it, you’ll wonder how you never saw it before as it’s all around us.