The Winter Garden

Magnolia Lanarth has a short but glorious season

Magnolia Lanarth has a short but glorious season

I have been away for a couple of weeks. To the tropics, no less, but I need to let the experience percolate in my brain a little longer before I can translate it to anything of relevance for gardeners in our temperate climate.

What amazed me was coming home to our winter garden. When I left in mid July, the earliest magnolias were just showing colour and the first blooms, along with some of the narcissi. By early August, we have trees full of bloom. The garden is awash with scores of tui as the campanulata cherries flower. I briefly thought of writing about plants for winter colour but there is just so much in flower that it would quickly descend to a boring list.

If narcissus could look startled, these cyclamineus  growing in the park certainly do

If narcissus could look startled, these cyclamineus growing in the park certainly do

This is our winter, dear readers. Technically spring does not start until September 1. Gardening is different here to many countries.

If you have looked at British and northern European gardens, there is a long spell in winter when nothing happens. People basically put their gardens to bed and retreat indoors. A heavy dependence on deciduous perennials means that gardens which are full of foliage and bloom in warmer months look dead in winter. The majority of their trees are deciduous so become bare skeletons. It is why the definition of form becomes hugely important because that is all there is to look in the depths of winter. Hardy plants like buxus, yew and conifers give accents which are often the only statement plants in those cold months.

The same is probably true of many inland areas in the world (outside the tropics) where temperatures plummet. My Canberra-resident daughter is always astonished when she comes home in winter to see how lush and colourful we are compared to her arid, hard conditions.

Those who shun deciduous plants miss out on the wonder of plants like Magnolia Vulcan

Those who shun deciduous plants miss out on the wonder of plants like Magnolia Vulcan

For starters, our native plants are all evergreen. So too are most of the ornamental plants we favour in our gardens. Over the years, I have met a swag of customers who point blank refuse to have anything deciduous in their garden, which I think is a bit of a short sighted view. Some of the showiest plants of all are those which go dormant in the colder months and then leap into spectacular display – magnolias, for example. To my mind, there is a place for both evergreen and deciduous plants in gardens.

I do, however, find it curious when I see people unquestioningly grabbing the fundamentals of garden design from other climates without considering the application to our conditions. Most of us like some element of design and definition in our gardens, though there are looser styles which don’t rely on these – meadow, woodland, prairie and food forests are examples. But that definition is not essential to give us something to look at in winter.

Similarly, I am inclined to silently snort when I hear people pontificating that foliage and form are the most important elements in plants because flowers are but transient (or worse, vulgar). I think we should celebrate living in a climate which is so temperate that we can have flowers and seasonal colour twelve months of the year, that we don’t need to put our gardens to bed for winter (or indeed for hot, dry summers) and that the clarity of light and the brightness of the sun seems just as great in July and August as it is in January. We just have shorter daylight hours, lower temperatures and a few more storms.

Being so temperate, few gardeners in this country have conditions where there is a sharp seasonal change. Most of us just drift imperceptibly from one season to the next with flowering extended over longer periods. The mid season camellias are at their peak here – more winter than spring flowering in this country. The snowdrops are passing over, but the dwarf narcissi are flowering all round the place and many of the lachenalias are blooming. Daphne scent hangs heavy in the air. The earliest rhododendrons are blooming already, michelias are opening.

And the magnolias. Do not forget the magnolias. Lanarth has a short but spectacular early season. M. campbellii is at its peak, red Vulcan is opening more flowers every day. The most spectacular time of our gardening year is upon us already, and it is still winter.

I rarely complain about the winter garden here.

While not usually fans of variegated flowers, The Czar var on the back lawn is an exception

While not usually fans of variegated flowers, The Czar var on the back lawn is an exception

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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