Shhh……the silent joy of the winter garden

A rest from the noise and clattering colourfulness of the summer garden.

Words: Charlie Ryrie

Pictures: Scott Morrison

Winter is such a precious time of quiet pleasure and retreat as a garden becomes more silent, its energies draw in and it puts away the cheery and expansive face it wears for so many months. Flowers become quieter and more reflective, happy to be appreciated individually rather than feeling the need to be in a crowd. Despite the tedium of the grey days, the sodden skies – and ground – I have come to realize that winter may be my favourite time in the garden. And I don’t think it is solely because it is the one season when I don’t have to worry about keeping up with what’s happening out there, I genuinely love the winter garden.

Of course there is joy in the expectation of bursting spring blooms, the thrill of the first swathes of bulbs, the dozens of different greens preceding a rush of colour as spring turns towards summer. Who can resist the lure of armfuls of abundant summer blooms, sunny days and gardens abuzz with insects, or those sutble shades of autumn along with the sizzling colours that see out the year? Well, perhaps I can resist now because in so many ways I like winter best. Spring is so full of expectation it’s almost physically painful, it happens slowly then rushes ahead so fast, existential angst too swiftly hits with the knowledge that soon it will all be over, we’ll be into high summer and monochrome greens with rainbows of colour before the rush and pzazz and light and colour have gone again.

I admire a beautifully designed garden, but I don’t strive for one – and if I did it would anyway be unattainable because I don’t have that discipline or order. I love my garden not for any structure and show but for the beauty of the plants and organisms that live in it, the tiny insignificant patches of unimaginably perfect grey green lichens, stems of wild grass, the magnificence of mature oaks and limes as well as all the throngs of cultivated and wilder flowers. And perhaps I like winter best because it is so beautifully undemanding. For most of the year my gardening life is all about growing, picking, providing, packing, smiling, sending, delivering, dismantling, composting. But in winter I sit back and love my garden.

The best seasonal flowers truly reflect the way the mood changes with the months, and it mirrors the way my energies change, drawing down for winter and expanding through spring and summer before a dash to keep up with autumn before winter again descends . At this time of year the skies are often leaden and low, a blanket of damp cloud is more usual than those occasional joyful winter blue sky days. I like best to appreciate the garden from indoors at this time of year and steadfastly refuse to garden in January, apart from a few necessary jobs such as exfoliaging hellebores for the best show. Goodness, there will be months enough when the garden is demanding my attention.

Dogs need walking whatever the weather and each wet winter walk starts with a trip round the damp garden appreciating what’s arrived and what’s to come. Magnolia buds are changing early, points of white slowly beginning to peep through their velvety coverings, matching the lichen covered branches so perfectly. Mahonia has been throwing its scent around for months, and winter flowering honeysuckle takes my breath away whenever I walk past it – a bonus that I can see it from my kitchen table desk along with a wonderfully abundant hamamelis with its bright yellow and red witchy tendrils. Crocus are piercing the bed by the path and appearing in low clusters in the wild garden, perfect studies in miniature, their pale purple contrasting with the virginal snowdrops in the hedgerow. But flowers are still quiet and delicate, none of the blowsiness that comes later.

The stars are the hellebores. They start before Christmas and by the end of January there are yellows, whites, pinks, greens, singles and doubles, plain and speckled. The deepest darkest blueblack blooms are still to come. I just can’t resist them, any and all of them, something about them manages to be at once both delicately ephemeral and satisfactorily sturdy. They don’t shriek out “Look at me I’m wonderful” in the way some later flowers clamour for attention, they quietly perform, not seeming to care a jot whether you notice them or not. Their very quietness makes them all the more noticeable. I don’t think they are smug, but perhaps a little. And as I admire them from my window, no effort required except a gaze now and then, I don’t think I’m smug. But perhaps a little.

Charlie Ryrie is lecturing at the British Flower School and will also be at the inaugural Gardens Illustrated Festival