GARDENING / All things white and beautiful: In the clear light of winter the beauty of a garden's design is revealed, writes Mary Keen (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Culture

FEW gardens are open to the public between the end of September and Easter. This is a pity, because seeing a garden in winter is often the best way to judge it. Good gardens go on looking good without flowers: it has been said that you should be able to spot a winner from a black and white photograph taken in December. On crisp days, with the light slanting through leafless trees and evergreens standing solid and comforting, you can see the shape of everything without being distracted by colour, and garden walks can be lovely. In the weeks that remain before the Easter stampede to the garden centre and the wheeling out of unsharpened mowers there is time to visit those places that are not afraid to be seen while others are under wraps - and they will all be emptier than on a summer's day.

In the 18th century, the layout of a garden was more important than the plants it contained. These were places for walking and thinking, green gardens with statues or small buildings in strategic places to encourage contemplation. One of first of the English landscape gardens to create a theatrical classical setting was laid out in the grounds of Chiswick House. Lord Burlington came back from the Grand Tour with a bag full of drawings of Palladian villas which inspired him when he built his own house. He took the Italian Campagna, which he had seen idealised in the paintings of Claude and Salvator Rosa, as the model for his garden. For this work he consulted William Kent. The gardens at Chiswick have been subjected to some spirited reconstruction work and it is now possible to stroll through evergreen walks and glades much as Burlington and his guests must have done. In the green alleys pigeons fly up as you pass, narrow walks of yew frame a stone pillar and groves of birches rise behind dark hedges. There are paths to lead you on through tunnels of evergreen to a surreal view of an Ionic temple perched above a round pool with an obelisk at its centre. Small green trees in white painted tubs (they were orange trees in Lord Burlington's day but now they are Portugal laurels) are ranged on the steps of the grassy amphitheatre surrounding the water. All it lacks are the peacocks that adorned the place in the 18th century.

Stourhead, like Chiswick, is a good garden to visit in the off-season, because it, too, depends for its effect on landscape and buildings. Henry Hoare started his garden about 20 years later than Lord Burlington. It is on a grander scale than Chiswick, but the inspiration behind it is the same. Visiting these great 18th-century landscaped gardens is an experience that is more architectural than horticultural, so there is no season of the year in which they lose their point. Although some of the classical allusions are lost on the modern generation, the beauty of the gardens appeals as much as ever.

The garden at Polesden Lacey, like those at Chiswick and Stourhead, was designed to impress a glittering company, but its heyday was in the early part of this century. Mrs Greville played hostess to royalty and Cabinet ministers between the wars and Polesden Lacey's house and gardens became an elegant stage on which reputations were made and broken.

In a small hedged enclosure out of the east wind is a formal area planted for winter. Four Persian ironwood trees, which have little tassels of red in February and pink in autumn, fill the centre of each quarter of the garden. The air smells honeyed from clumps of Christmas box and the place is awash with early blue crocuses. There are snowdrops and aconites among the marbled leaves of autumn-flowering cyclamen. Scented wands of daphne mezereum and Japanese apricots flowering on the warm walls make the garden like a luxurious room. It must have been a good place for exchanging confidences, out of the wind and well away from the other guests. There is also a sheltered grass walk over a quarter of a mile long with fine views to the South Downs, which was laid out by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, when he lived at Polesden Lacey.

On a less dramatic scale are those gardens belonging to people who care so much for plants that there is always a flower to inspect whatever the time of year. These are not the places to visit for a fast walk and a general impression of beauty. The owners will expect much stopping and peering. Minute variations in snowdrops will need to be noted. The single early narcissus must not be missed and the rarest yellow daphne must be admired. The spectacle in these gardens will be provided by Lenten roses and small early bulbs.

The National Gardens Scheme, whose yellow book does not appear until late February, does have several early openers. Among these, the Old Rectory at Burghfield, containing plants from all over the world, is a star. A carpet of hellebores, in all shades from dusky purple to cream, is the glory of the spring garden. There are hellebores at Great Barfield too, where curling beds accommodate an increasing collection of plants. There are snowdrops everywhere, for this is the garden of Richard Nutt, the snowdrop king.

The advantage of visiting these plant museums is that people with the plant-collecting bug also have a mania for propagation. If there is a chance of taking something home to your own garden which you can choose to admire at a warmer moment it is definitely worth the trip, for there is something magical about small flowers which brave the elements long before you dare remove your overcoat and gloves.

Chiswick House: gardens open all year, daily, 9.30am-dusk. Stourhead, Stourton, Wiltshire: garden open all year, daily, 8am-dusk. Polesden Lacey grounds, near Dorking, Surrey: garden open all year, daily, 11am-sunset. The Old Rectory, Burghfield, near Reading, Berkshire: open 23 February, 11am-4pm. Great Barfield, Bradenham, Bucks: open 20 February, 2pm-5pm. Details of other gardens that are open at unusual times are available from the National Trust, tel: 071-222 9251 and the National Gardens Scheme, tel: 0483 211535.

(Photograph omitted)