A winter’s tale: Why the dreariest season is important for your garden

July may not be considered the glamour puss of gardening months, but there is still plenty to warm a cold gardener’s heart.

Even if you weren’t around in the 1990s, you will be familiar with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Not that Vivaldi was around then either, but British geezer violinist Nigel Kennedy was, and his recording of the classic suite of concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra sold millions of copies. In the provinces where I grew up, it became standard café music to accompany your nachos. The music for “Winter” was also used on National Bank ads for years, back when we all watched broadcast TV, and its namesake is certainly the most suspenseful of the seasons. But while my love of nachos endures, the Four Seasons and I have grown apart. I will not tire of the real ones though, even winter. For what may seem like the sleepiest, dreariest time in the garden is an important moment that delineates the year.

Skeletons in the garden

Unclothed of their leaves, the bare branches of deciduous trees and shrubs add architectural interest to a garden in winter. They drop their leaf load to conserve energy and have some downtime before spring. They certainly aren’t trying to be sombre or mysterious, but all the same, the silhouette of a large, leafless tree against a winter sunset is evocative.

If you want your garden to work several different looks, choose deciduous plants that will show off a new wardrobe every season. This is why we adore liquidambars. Their lush green summer leaves are followed by a flickering showcase of orange, wine and yellow in autumn, then they drop their numerous spiky seed pods before stripping down to bare- branched beauty and revealing their majestic tiered forms. Standard liquidambars grow up to 25m tall
so you need a decent-sized section to house one. But what good luck – there are dwarf varieties! ‘Little Richard’ only grows 3m high by 1m wide.

Winter also provides an opportunity for deciduous trees with impressive bark to take the stage. Bare silver birches invite you to strip off their bone-white papery bark (at least, I did this to ours as a kid until Mum stopped me). They are particularly striking and Nordic-looking when planted in stands. ‘White Spire’ is an upright form, ideal for narrow areas. Its green leaves turn golden in autumn before they fall. For bark connoisseurs, you can’t go past the strips of peeling bark on the paper bark maple, or the burnished mahogany bark of the Tibetan cherry, Prunus serrula, which also treats you to white blossom in spring.

Winter also offers the opportunity to get a little twisted. In the coldest months, the corkscrew hazel becomes a maze of wickedly contorted branches that, in spring, sport fluffy catkins. And then there’s our native twisty shrub Muehlenbeckia astonii or shrubby tororaro, which has tiny heart-shaped green leaves for most of the year but loses them in winter, showcasing its beautifully twiggy divaricating form. Only five percent of our native species are deciduous because even though we might need our heat pumps and hotties in winter, they decided it was temperate enough to evolve here without needing downtime in colder months. That’s why M. Astonii can cope with almost any conditions you put it in. It can be clipped into mounds or grown as a hedge, and it produces tiny berries that are eaten by birds and lizards.

Naked blooms

Anemanthele lessoniana, Nepeta sp. and Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'.

Other plants take advantage of the absence of leaves to show off their flowers to maximum impact. The Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica, is a spiny shrub that produces exquisite blossoms on bare branches, and you can take your pick when it comes to colour, as its flower palette ranges from red to peach, pink and white. They produce beautifully perfumed yellow quinces in autumn that will pucker your mouth if you eat them raw but can be turned into jams and jellies – or just fill a bowl with them and leave them to scent a room. Then there’s my favourite, wintersweet, which has wax-paper-like brown or lemon yellow flowers that smell like sweet spices.

Or, delight in the tiny pearl-like berries of the Callicarpa dichotoma, also known as purple beautyberry. The berries appear in autumn and last well into winter after the leaves have dropped. And who would dare say no to a magnolia? Their profusion of pink, white or yellow flowers look like giant bows that have been expertly tied onto bare branches. But one of their most endearing features is that they come dressed in fur coats. The flower buds are insulated in outer casings that are covered in fine, ever-so-soft silver-brown or sage-green hairs, called trichomes, that keep them insulated from the cold until they are ready to burst onto the late-winter scene.

A budding magnolia

Winter warmers

If you don’t have a fire pit – and I highly recommend some sort of backyard brazier for staying nice and toasty while you look for the Matariki star cluster this winter – a number of plants will recreate the appearance of its flickering warmth. The most beautiful are some of the dogwoods. Bared-barked Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ actually resembles a burning bush. This shrub grows to 1.5m high and is orange-yellow at the base of its bare stems and red-hot at the tips. In summer it’s like a miniature fairy-tale tree with golden leaves. Or, if you’re after something taller, coral bark maples sport pinky-red bark in winter when their colour-changing leaves are off duty. ‘Sango-kaku’ grows 3m high. Plant it towards the back of a border and fill in the foreground with smaller “fires”. Red-orange native tussock Carex testacea looks wonderful planted in large groups and is relatively low-maintenance and hardy. Heck, why not just get rid of your lawn and go full tussock land?

The icing on top

In my Auckland garden, having a frost is exciting as we only get one or two a year, and I love seeing my leafy greens with a dusting of ice on them – plus it means they’ll taste better. While growth slows down in plants during winter, many become sweeter after a few frosts because cold weather triggers them to pump sugar into their cells to reduce water content – it’s their built-in antifreeze. This is why southern parts of the country produce sweeter turnips and swedes. A good frost will also sweeten up kale, silverbeet, kohlrabi, cabbages and parsnips. They’re all tough enough to cope with cold conditions.

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