Form, colour and harmony

Caroline Donald plans a winter garden
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The Independent Online
At this time of year, when you are surrounded by death and decay in the garden, a new level of sophistication is called for. It is time to concentrate on structure, without being waylaid by colour, which is so easy to do in the summer months.

However, if, like mine, your garden is the size of a peanut shell, you will probably find that, charming as evergreen shrubs now become, by default they tend to sit in gloomy lumps for most of the year. They are like stern, sombre chaperones, elbowing away attention (not to mention room and light) from the more dainty flowering perennials. A pinky-white Viburnum tinus, for example, had such a gay optimism to it when bought on a dull January day, but looked flat and drab for most of its flowerless year until it was settled in the space it deserved in a larger garden.

I therefore try to keep these winter shapers to a minimum and, instead, use plants that will give both decent summer flowers and, when their days are done, winter seedheads. These will add some architectural form and height to an otherwise sadly depleted border. To anyone dedicated to the cause of thrift, this has the bonus of making you feel as if you are getting two different plants for the price of one.

At the moment, the clematis `Gipsy Queen' on my wall is struggling on with its last few dark velvety-purple flowers, but the hairy, greenish seedheads, like cheerleaders' mops, are cheering the branches of a rose that is fast divesting itself of its leaves. The most striking of the clematis seedheads are those of Clematis tangutica, a plant that in late summer bears small, lantern-like, buttercup-yellow flowers, which are then replaced by a mass of delightful, fluffy balls of silver in winter. Grow this vigorous climber through an old apple tree for a glorious outline on a bright, snowy morning; it will look as if the tree is covered in fairy lights. Clematis orientalis is similar, though less vigorous.

For all the care and attention I have to lavish on the two thirsty hydrangeas I have growing in pots, I expect them to make up for it in winter, when the rather camp and showy mop-heads of summer should dry out gracefully into papery shadows of their former selves. The once-brilliant white petals of `Madame Emile Mouillere' are now a delicate shade of soft pale green, edged with a blush of pink. Eventually they will turn brown but still hold their shape, offering protection against frost and snow to the developing leaf tips within.

Likewise, the leaves of the rampant climbing hydrangea, H petiolaris, are yellowing rapidly and beginning their annual descent, revealing the fine, reddish-brown bark and the skeletal lace-cap flowerheads, as well as the odd, previously hidden, bird's nest.

In a new border is an Eryngium x tripartitum, which is still settling in but doing its best to put on a brave show of spiky, thistle-like heads still touched with blue, while all around is in a state of collapse. The larger versions of the sea holly would be even more dramatic, as would the spent Barcelona cathedral-like spires of acanthus and verbascum, were there room.

The more modestly sized Sedum spectabile `Autumn Joy' comes into its own about now, having been hidden for most of the summer by the bully- boy leaves of the peony, whose own flowering period is so short that it hardly seems to justify the space it takes up.

The sedum is cheering up the border no end, with wide, flat heads of dark pink flowers that tone elegantly with a rather leggy pot-grown chrysanthemum nearby. As with the hydrangea, the stiff heads will hold a fine display long after the sedum's fleshy leaves have died off.

The biennial honesty bears white to deep purple, scented flowerheads in summer, before transforming into the Japanese-looking paper-moon seedpods once so beloved of dried-flower arrangers. But beware, it is prolifically self-seeding.

Another staple of the dried-flower arrangement is the seedpod of Papaver orientale, such a stark pepperpot to find inside such blowzy petals.

In an ideal garden one would have hip-bearing species and shrub roses, such as the purple Rosa rugosa, which, along with its sister R rugosa `Alba', produces cheerful, fat, red-and-orange hips. Rosa moyesii has blood-red flowers in summer, and, as the great rose-grower David Austin puts it in his Handbook of Roses, "they are followed by no lesser glory in the form of large crimson flagon-shaped hips." R moyesii `Geranium' will produce even larger hips.

Also in this ideal garden would be a pond, far enough away from the house to merit a walk with the dogs. From a distance, standing out against the hoary frost, would be the tall, upright frame and distinctive cylindrical seedheads of the bulrush Typha latifolia, which can grow up to 2.5m tall.

A more realistic scale could be achieved with the 60cm-tall Typha minima, a delicate marginal water-plant that could be planted near a clump of Iris foetidissima - unkindly called the stinking iris - whose cylindrical seedpods open in winter to reveal rounded, scarlet fruits.

Even on the dullest November day, a well structured garden should give a reminder of summer past, and a premonition of things to come.