Monday, 26 October 2009

Designing a Winter Garden

Garden design is all about individual taste. One person’s dream garden can be another gardener’s nightmare! But one thing on which everyone agrees is that a garden should be interesting all the year round. If your outdoor space is as dreary as the weather during the winter months here are a few ideas to brighten it up.

Bare branches of ‘ordinary’ trees can look quite extraordinary, especially if dusted with snow. Leaves, stems and seedpods, which are hardly noticed when a plant is in full flower, become the centre of attention when outlined with a sparkle of frost. When planning to introduce new plants don’t forget to find out what different species will look like in winter.

When luxuriant summer foliage has died down, the underlying shapes of the garden can be seen more easily. Stand back and try to pick out the main shapes of both hard and soft landscaping. Taking photographs or making a simple sketch can help.

If beds, borders, lawns, hedges etc. are mostly square or rectangular consider the difference introducing a few curves might make. Likewise, a tall angular shape could give an interesting visual lift to a planting scheme of predominantly soft, rounded shapes.

Unless you live in a very mild area – or have exceptionally green fingers – you won’t be able to produce floral displays as vibrant and varied as those of summer. A window box or tub near your door planted with winter-flowering pansies is the easiest way to provide a bright welcome to visitors.

Most plants that flower in the coldest months tend to have small, paler flowers but that doesn’t make them any less attractive. Light colours show up well against dark backgrounds and seem to reflect even the weakest winter sun.

Snowdrops are an obvious choice, although choosing from the hundred or so available varieties can be confusing! The common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is one of the earliest to flower in January, while others are more likely to appear in February or March. Winter-flowering heathers, hardy cyclamens (Cyclamen coum) and hellebores can also be relied on to flower early.
In spite of its name, the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) rarely blooms at Christmas but it is well worth waiting for its large, white flowers to appear from January to March.

But flowers are not the only sources of colour. Red, orange and yellow berries brighten up dull days – at least until the birds have feasted on them.

Tree bark also comes in a wide range of colours. Most people can recognise a silver birch (Betula pendula) by its white trunk, but it also has many attractive cousins such as the hardy river birch (Betula nigra) which has peeling, cinnamon-coloured bark. Many acers reveal colourful and patterned barks once they’ve shed their beautiful autumn leaves.

If you haven’t enough room for trees, perhaps you could find space for some dogwood. There are many varieties, all with colourful stems ranging from yellow to deep red and almost black.

What’s better than flowers in midwinter? Scented flowers! Many early-flowering shrubs bloom from December and smell wonderful! If you plant your favourites near your door or alongside your most-used paths you can enjoy them every time you go outside. Some of the most popular are Wintersweet, Mahonia, Viburnum, Winter jasmine, Witch hazel and Winter honeysuckle, all of which have several varieties.

Winter is the time when many people become more aware of the wildlife in their gardens. It’s easier to see birds in the branches of bare trees, and tracks left in snow give clues to unseen night visitors. A harsh winter often makes normally shy creatures venture closer to houses in search of food so this is the best time to encourage them.

A well-stocked bird table or hanging feeders placed within easy view of your windows can attract a surprising number of species. As well as entertaining you with their antics, birds will reward you for your generosity by searching the rest of your garden for overwintering insects and soil pests. Why not help them further by putting up some nest boxes in readiness for spring? It won’t be long!

Keep Gardening – the Easier Way

Gardening is great exercise. All that digging, weeding, mowing lawns and cutting hedges helps to keep muscles strong and hearts healthy. But even the most enthusiastic gardener has to slow down as the years go by. If the hobby that once gave you so much pleasure is now causing aches and pains, nature is telling you it’s time for a rethink. You don’t have to give up gardening altogether, but you can almost certainly make it easier. Here are a few ideas you might like to consider:

Make a list of all the different jobs you do in the garden and mark the ones you are finding the most difficult. Brainstorm to find ways of reducing, or even eliminating, those particular tasks. For example, installing a simple irrigation system could save you many trips with a heavy watering can in dry weather.

Aim higher. One of the most common problems for older gardeners is getting down to the ground. When bending, stooping or kneeling is uncomfortable – or even impossible – explore ways of lifting plants up to your level. Raised beds that you can easily reach when standing or sitting are practical and attractive. Wall-mounted planters come in a wide range of materials and styles to match your house and garden and can be fixed to exactly the height that suits you. And, for a colourful but easily maintained feature, how about a tiered stand on which you can arrange a number of hanging baskets?

Choose your plants with care. Do you have formal flowerbeds that you fill with a succession of different bulbs and bedding plants throughout the seasons? Consider using more perennials that can stay in the same place for several years, perhaps with easy-to-grow annual seeds sprinkled between them. A collection of deciduous and evergreen shrubs, under planted with drifts of spring bulbs, will provide year-round colour and interest in return for minimal maintenance.

Check your tools. Good gardening tools can last a lifetime, but if it now takes almost as much effort to lift that heavy spade as it does to dig with it you need to lighten up! Visit a garden centre that stocks a good selection of tools and try out different brands for size, weight and ease of use. Look out for tools that have been designed for disabled gardeners. Many of them, like long-handled trowels or easy-to-grip pruners, make gardening easier for everyone.

Don’t give up the veg! If you’ve been enjoying your own home-grown vegetables and fruit you won’t want to give them up for supermarket produce. But if you use traditional growing methods that include lots of winter digging, now would be a good time to consider switching to a raised bed system. There’s no need for deep digging and closer planting means you get the same yield from a smaller space – with fewer weeds! You can also grow a surprising number of fruits, vegetables and salad crops in containers. Imagine sitting comfortably on your patio and picking perfectly ripened strawberries!

Ask an expert. Redesigning a garden to make it easier to manage doesn’t mean covering most of it with concrete or paving. Often, a small change, such as altering steep steps, can make a big difference. Check your local professional landscape gardeners and find one who will be happy to visit your garden and give you a free, no obligation consultation. You might be pleasantly surprised by some of his or her suggestions.