We’re past the winter solstice. Allelluia! Recent winter weeks have been colder than I can remember for more than a decade. The dull, grey, lustreless days are relieved from time to time by ones when the winter sun bestows a rare radiance on the garden picture. Suddenly, one notices plants in flower, such as the Hamamelis x intermedia Diane in front of the house. This is perhaps the most wonderful variety of witch hazel, bearing spidery flowers in unbelievable shades of orange to ochre, smouldering along twiggy, arching branches. And it’s fragrant.
But that is not what I want to write about, for this is the time of year when the bones of a garden are laid bare. Devoid of leaf and flower, any good garden should still look amazing and give you pleasure of a subtle and sophisticated kind; one drawn from the juxtaposition of quite a narrow palette range of browns and greens. If it doesn’t, you must re-plan your garden immediately! Add to that the appreciation of plants and artefacts in perfect harmony of proportion.
If you’ve kept a photographic record of your garden, you will quickly be able to trace its progression from initial planting to fulfilment. But beware, as the mature garden quickly tips over from effulgence into an overgrown tangle asking for the chopper. Meanwhile, ornaments remain reliably static, thank goodness. I recall the gardeners saying, years ago, about a new ornament: ‘We won’t cement it down. We know you, you’ll move it.’ They were right.
In my garden, any artefact that calls for more than three men to move it is off the menu. Here, large items such as the 10ft-high Shakespeare Urn, a fountain near the house, and the V&A Temple have to stay put. But sundials, planters, small urns and pedestals are all up for grabs. Just as in winter you take the opportunity to refine or alter your planting, equal consider-ation should periodically be given to any garden’s ornament. The basic question always to ask is does it still look right where it is, or should it be moved now?
Years ago, having no snobbery over garden ornament, I bought four phoney statues depicting the Arts Painting, Music, Architecture and Sculpture. They have occupied various positions in the Fountain Court near the house, beginning their lives alternating with columns of Irish yew. Later, when we paved around the fountain, two migrated and were placed in the midst of small circular beds.
But this year, I took out the beech hedge that formed a backdrop behind them, a master-stroke that threw the Fountain Court and the Small Orchard together. This revealed the topiary tableau, which I had trained over two decades as part of a magnificent vista from the west front of the house to the Kitchen Garden. Inevitably, the Arts didn’t look at all happy in the new arrangement. Minus the hedge, they needed a new controlling focal point upon which to be in attendance. And so we have placed them in a square, equidistant from the fountain. Marvellous.
Large garden buildings and ornaments may not be moved, but it is time to consider whether the planting around them continues to set the object off or kills it off. A rising walk flanked by balustrading, called the Beaton Bridge, looked enchanting for years flanked with an arcade of Virburnum opulus springing over it. But alas, what was designed as a framing device to a huge
perspective running from the Shakespeare Urn to the V&A Temple has latterly become a menace, impeding rather than framing the vista. So off with its head! The effect was amazing
as the light poured in.
The viburnum’s roots will soon be grubbed out, to be replaced by a Hydrangea quercifolia. This is a quite gorgeous shrub with leathery, deeply lobed dark-green leaves of bold silhouette, bearing frothy white flowers in late summer. But what entrances me even more is what happens to those leaves in late autumn and early winter. They turn a glorious shade of rich burgundy. Arising behind the ascending balustrading, they will bring drama at a time of year when everything else is tipping downwards.