Jeanette Lerwill reports on our meeting in November 2019 when Val Bourne talked about The Winter Garden.
It’s always good to have a talk from a fellow HPS member, and a very longstanding one at that. Val joined the HPS in 1970, initially to take advantage of free seeds for a garden she was creating; her Yorkshire roots made her thrifty so free seeds were very welcome. She has made many friends through the organisation and, despite being hard of hearing since birth, she became a teacher, garden writer and all round garden guru.
A move in 2004 from Hook Norton to Spring Cottage, Cold Aston, in the Cotswolds, with its one-third of an acre of garden meant a change of soil and weather conditions. A harsh climate makes it cold, windy and wet – already this winter they have had 2 inches of snow and it’s only November.
Val described her style as ‘shoehorn gardening’, tending to be totally overplanted and containing too many flowers! This is something I think most of us can identify with when you love plants. The garden is also organic and she describes it as a ‘living jigsaw’ (also the title of her latest book).
Val mentioned the importance of seasonal light in the Northern Hemisphere, which backlights grasses and tall perennials. The perception of colour also changes in softer light, and low sun picks up detail, making her in love with her garden and particularly keen to maximise these natural enhancements. Unlike many gardeners, who try to provide year round interest all around the garden, Val has borders that peak in each of the four seasons.
In the garden generally Val uses few trees, there is a woodland area at the bottom of the garden which she feels, if she were planning the garden now, she would move to the top due to the poor drainage at the bottom of the slope. Trees are needed to add scale, shelter and shade. She particularly likes Betula ermanii ‘Grayswood Hill’ with its pinkish bark, which is underplanted with ophiopogon, cyclamen and eranthis. To add structure to the winter garden there are colourful stems of Rubus thibetanus, Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ (which are both pollarded), Cornus alba and C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’. This last cornus is not cut to ground like C. alba but is trimmed by around a third each year. Evergreen shrubs such as box are also used, and are topiarised into balls and chickens. These were all grown from cuttings, and a tip Val passed on was to use four or five cuttings to make a box ball as they fill out much more quickly, although she suggested using only one for a pyramid. Val also believes that box pyramids are less susceptible to blight than box balls, possibly due to wind movement, blowing away the spores. Although there are evergreen shrubs for structure, with sarcococca and skimmia in containers, Val admits to not having progressed to conifers yet! Evergreen ferns such as Polystichum setiferum (Divisilobum Group) ‘Herrenhausen’ and polypodium are used to introduce texture in part shaded areas. For early scent she recommends Lonicera x purpusii.
As the site slopes away the spring garden is sited at bottom of the garden. Hellebores, purchased from her good friend John Massey, include some of Rodney Davey’s ‘ladies’, namely Helleborus ‘Anna’s Red’, H. ’Molly’s White’ and H. ’Penny’s Pink’. Snowdrops are a great love, but not the expensive rare ones; she is particularly keen on the Greatorex doubles with mostly Shakespearean names, and the pixie hat-shaped Galanthus ‘South Hayes’ which she finds easy. Other favourites are G. ‘Viridapice’, G. ‘Augustus’ and G. ‘Blewbury Tart’. The spring garden is also home to winter aconites, Cyclamen coum and Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’, which can flower as early as mid-November. Iris unguicularis are not far behind, and a particular recommendation is I. u. ‘Walter Butt’, which has large flowers and, if picked in bud, will open in the warmth when brought inside. Another particular favourite of the spring garden is Pulmonaria ‘Diana Clare’, which was introduced by Bob Brown and named after his wife.
Galanthus plicatus Augustus’
In the south-facing summer border Val grows oriental poppies, with Papaver orientale ‘Karine’ being a particular favourite, although most of her stock was lost due to mildew. She then went on to describe her autumn planting, which is around the edge of the garden and includes grasses, such as Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferner Osten’ and Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, along with Kniphofia rooperi and perovskia, which surprised her by its ability to cope with the harsh conditions. However, grasses such as pennisetum and also penstemons do not seem able to cope, due to the high rainfall.
To help plants which require somewhat drier conditions, Val places rocks around plantings of salvias and Stipa tenuissima. The rocks reflect heat up on to the plants.
Little mention of colour was made during her talk, although Val believes red to be of particular value in the winter garden and seems to ‘pull’ all other colours together. Malus x robusta ‘Red Sentinel’ and the hips of roses being favourites.
It was very interesting to hear first-hand the experiences of such a knowledgeable hardy planter, gardening in what sound like quite inhospitable circumstances.