It is usually on the hottest day of the year that passers-by accost me with envy and tell me how lucky I am, as they shuffle reluctantly off to their air-conditioned offices. Wearing a variety of hats with large brims, however unbecoming, covered in factor 50 sunscreen, and seeking any task which allows me to work in the shade, it is virtually impossible to garden in 80°+. Winter is the time we gardeners are eager to do the most physically arduous tasks, and relish the cold bright days. Some of our most pleasurable tasks occur during the dormant season: pruning vines and wisteria, renovating fruit trees, cleaning out nesting boxes for the birds, completing planting plans for the spring, browsing seed catalogues…
The winter is also the most telling season for garden designers: it is now that the structure of the garden reveals itself. When the last leaves have fallen, and most of our herbaceous plants have died back, any failures of form and balance in the permanent planting scheme are clearly visible. Trees and evergreen shrubs are crucial to the success of a garden with year-round interest, and form the backbone of even the smallest garden in winter. There is something profoundly reassuring about the presence of a tree in your garden, however small (a slim columnar
cherry such as Prunus amanogawa, takes up very little space – and there are many beautiful small trees such as crab apple or Japanese maple). There is nothing to compare to the silhouette of a tree in winter, and, if you are thinking of planting a tree, this is the best time to do it, when you have a huge variety of bare-root specimens to choose from.
In recent years, some of the most successful garden designs have combined formal structure with informal planting: the clean crisp lines of box surrounding beds full of luscious planting (perhaps best exemplified by the work of Luciano Giubbilei). Designers such as Tom Stuart Smith have also done wonderful things with topiary: No longer the strict geometric forms initially popularised by the Romans and revived in the formal gardens of 16th and 17th Century Europe such as Versailles. Instead, we find clusters of box balls or cubes creating a rhythmic pattern through which a riot of colour and informal shapes can flow. Japanese cloud-pruned plants (niwaki), intended to replicate natural forms created by wind and weather, have also found their way into our gardens, and these have a huge presence in a garden which has largely gone to sleep.
Evergreens are, of course, the mainstay of municipal planting at its most dull, but they are also the crux of any successful garden in winter. Even if you have an insuperable dislike of topiary, there are a myriad evergreen shrubs that will create pleasing forms at this time of year, one to suit every style of garden, and this is the season to take note of any gaps and introduce some shapes which will give you pleasure next winter.