The garden in winter can be an unforgiving place, says Anna Pavord. All the more reason to fill that hard earth with a few pick-me-up varieties

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The Independent Online

What I should be doing at this moment is writing a lyrical piece on the garden in winter: silhouette of trees against the darkening sky, white chalice buds of snowdrop, choirboy-ruffed aconites, all that sort of stuff. But I mean, the winter garden. Who needs it?

I awoke with the best intentions, thinking positive thoughts. Although the view from the bed was not propitious, I togged up, put on my wellies and opened the back door, ready for a trip round the plot. The door was snatched out of my hand by a 75mph gale, a stray wild cat shot through my legs from its berth under the car and I tripped over a pile of oranges that had somehow washed up in the hall. I think they are reminding me that I must make marmalade.

Not a good start. But I wrestled the door shut, ducked under a branch of Virginia creeper that had been ripped from its moorings by the wind and before I had got round the corner of the house was attacked by a hailstorm of the most extraordinary ferocity which left the ground white with its iced ball bearings. Hail piled up inside the rosettes of foxglove leaves like ice cream in a cornet.

You can only stay positive for so long. By the time I had skated over the quagmire of the front lawn, viewed the sodden waste of the side border where rubble seems to be mysteriously bubbling up as if from an underground tip and stubbed my toe on an icy edging stone while trying to smell a primrose, I had decided that the pleasures of the winter garden were only for masochists. The leaves of the gunnera, hanging like rhinoceros skins, seemed to be saying the same thing.

The ground could not look more unappealing: heavy, sullen, sticky, cold. The thought of getting my hands in it is as appetising as dallying in cold porridge. I came back inside to stare moodily at the scene outside the sitting-room window: dead fern fronds and the sticks of 'Compassion' rose ('Compassion'? There's a laugh. Twice it whipped me thornily in the face as I walked across the terrace, minding my own business).

That was where a winter garden should be. Right outside the window so that I could see it from the comfort of the house. Or perhaps there could be something close to the back door, so that I could take it in on the quick dash from the car. It's hopeless having the odd winter effect dotted randomly round the garden where finding it means losing your toes to frostbite and where it sits as lonely as a penguin on a broken ice floe.

What plants might you pull together for a winter pick-me-up? I'd probably start with the big dark Helleborus foetidus, though if ever a plant needed a name change, this is it. It is impossible for it to sell itself while it is saddled with the tag of stinking hellebore. This is a pity because it is a handsome thing. It holds itself well and just at the moment, the dark, evergreen leaves, deeply cut and fingered, are topped with pale green bundles of flower.

With a few of these plants grouped together and some big spreads of white snowdrop and yellow aconite set around their feet, I could see quite a pleasant winter scene developing. The hellebores, being evergreen, would contribute their bulk for the whole of the rest of the year and you could plant small wild daffodils to carry on through the spring, with woodruff or some equally forgiving ground cover to take over later. The woodruff (Galium odoratum) has tiny cross-shaped flowers scattered over mats of foliage that is as finely cut as mossy saxifrage.

This is the difficulty (but also the fun) of planning planting schemes. For maximum impact, you want groups of plants coming to a peak at the same time in various parts of the garden, but because gardens now are mostly smallish, the schemes also have to go on working, even if in a less concentrated way, for the rest of the year. This is particularly so with groups of winter plants.

The woodruff flowers in May and June. After that, perhaps some golden-leaved creeping jenny might take over as ground cover. This is easy and forgiving in less than ideal positions and puts up with the shade and dryish soil. Oh what a difference being warm makes. Ever since returning from my abortive foray, I have been sitting in front of a blow heater and have almost thawed out. I am beginning to feel positive. Even about the garden in winter.

The hellebores ought to go in first. Then I could shift in aconites and snowdrops from other parts of the garden. That would not be a problem. Galanthus angustifolius 'Atkinsii' has been flowering since before Christmas, pushing up through the ivy near the top of the garden. It's a big, bold snowdrop and the few bulbs I brought with me from the old garden have already multiplied in a very gratifying way. Some clumps are ready for splitting and you can move them just after they have finished flowering. "In the green" is the expression.

Neither snowdrops nor aconites do particularly well if they are planted as dry bulbs. They are not as forgiving in this respect as daffodils or tulips. So now is a good time to buy them. You can get both singles and doubles from the Cambo Estate, where carefully sorted flowering size bulbs cost £6.45 for 25, £10.30 for 50 or £16 for a hundred. If you're planting up big areas, their unsorted bulbs are a cheaper option. These are sent out "as dug", clumps which are a mixture of big and small bulbs. They cost £64 for 500 bulbs. They also sell aconites at £3.95 a clump.

So that little winter scene could be set up quite simply and without too much expense. If you wanted something more substantial than the hellebore as an anchor, you might go for the wintersweet, which has curious starry flowers, pale yellow in the best form, which is called Chimonanthus praecox 'Luteus'. They have a far-reaching spicy scent. But it flowers best when it grows vigorously and it grows most vigorously on a south or west wall. That I can't provide – not where it's needed – so for the moment, I will leave that idea alone and forge ahead with the hellebore plan, framed in the sitting-room window. Winter can be concentrated in that one space, 4ft x 5ft. On the rest of the windows, I'll just have to leave the shutters closed. Ostriches have the right idea.

Cambo Estate, Kingsbarns, St Andrews, Fife KY16 8QD, Tel: 01333 450054, Fax: 01333 450987, e-mail: cambo@camboestate.com; snowdrop website: www.cambosnowdrops.com

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