Winter: best seen from inside

Fed up with tramping over soggy lawns, Anna Pavord plans a place for bl ooms that she won't have to go outside to see
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The Independent Online
I should be writing a lyrical piece on the garden in winter just now: silhouette of trees against the darkening sky, white chalice buds of snowdrop, choirboy-ruffed aconites, all that sort of stuff. But, the winter garden - who needs it?

I awoke with the best intentions, thinking positive thoughts. I togged up, put on my wellies and opened the back door, ready for a fact-finding trip round the acre. The door was snatched out of my hand by a 75-mile-an-hour gale, the cat shot through my legs from its berth under the car and I tripped over a pile of oranges that had washed up in the passage after the Twelfth Night derobing.

Not a good start. But I wrestled the door shut, ducked under a branch of climbing hydrangea 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 ice ball-bearings. Hail piled up inside the rosettes of foxglove leaves like ice-cream in a cornet. 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 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 dead fern fronds, the sticks of `Souvenir du Dr Jamain' rose and melted puddles of crinum foliage that sit outside the study window.

That is 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. What is hopeless is to have the odd winter effect dotted round the garden where finding it means losing your toes to frostbite and where it sits as lonely as a penguin on an ice floe.

Beyond the study border, the sloping edge of the bank comes down to meet the lawn. At this end it is under the canopy of an enormous beech tree but in winter, when the beech tree is bare, it gets more light and moisture than at any other time of the year. There is a beaten-up old box tree here, trimmed to an egg shape. I would not go so far as to call it topiary, but it is a start. Reasonably close to it is a big dark Helleborus foetidus. 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 are topped with pale green bundles of flower.

With a few more plants of the same hellebore brought in to make a group leading away from the box, and some big spreads of white snowdrop and yellow aconite around their feet, I could see quite a pleasant winter scene developing. And the best thing wouldbe that I could get it all into place in the spring and be able to enjoy it next winter without having to take on hailstorms, gales, bolting cats and booby-trap oranges.

It would also be a good way of using that piece of ground. It is hard to get anything going there in the summer, because the patch is so dry and dark. The box and the hellebores, both evergreen, would continue to contribute their bulk and I could get wild daffodils to carry on through spring, with woodruff or other ground cover to take over later. The woodruff (Galium odoratum) has tiny cross-shaped flowers scattered over mats of foliage.

This is the difficulty (but also the fun) of planting schemes. 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 for the rest ofthe year. This is particularly so with winter plants.

The position might be too dry for the woodruff, though it would be worth a try. It flowers in May and June. After that, perhaps golden-leaved creeping jenny as ground cover. This grows in less than ideal positions and would put up with the shade cast by the beech in summer.

It is amazing what a difference being warm makes. Since returning from outside, I have been sitting in front of a heater and have almost thawed out. I am beginning to feel positive.

I would need to get the hellebores into position first and then shift in snowdrops and aconites from other parts of the garden. They need splitting and move best 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. The problem is finding them in the green. Bulb dealers generally do not handle bulbs in anything but a dried state. You can get them, though, from Fenland Bulbs, 225 Lynn Road, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 3DZ (0945 65666). Single snowdrops cost £7 per 100, doubles £9 per 100 and aconites £12 per 100. It also sells old-fashioned hoop petticoat daffodils at £12.50 for 50.

Perhaps what the back door needs in winter is something scented. That would be a treat. After the mahonia has finished, there is nothing much in this garden to smell during winter, except the odd primrose and they are awkwardly placed for noses. What arethe options? Chimonanthus, the wintersweet, is the first thing that comes to mind. It has starry flowers, pale yellow in the best form which is called Chimonanthus praecox `Luteus', and they have a far-reaching spicy scent. But the plant flowers best when it grows vigorously, and that means a south or west wall. The back door only offers north and east or a shady patch under the yew.

The other obvious thought is witch-hazel, perhaps the pale form Hamamelis mollis `Pallida' which has as swoony a scent as the wintersweet. But although it will grow on neutral soil, the best specimens I have seen have been on acid soil. I cannot give it that and I would hate to grow it badly. For those who can provide the right conditions, it has the added advantage of good autumn colour - bright butter yellow.

For the moment, I will forge ahead with framing the hellebores in the study window. Winter can be concentrated in that one space. On the rest of the windows, I will just have to leave the shutters closed. Ostriches have the right idea.

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