Roddy Llewellyn December Column
PUBLISHED: 14:44 08 December 2008 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013
Plan some perfect planting partnerships to sustain interest through the long days of winter, says Roddy Llewellyn
It is time to put the garden to bed for the winter, although it doesn't bother me personally if it is not left 100 per cent pristine. For instance, I leave the dead flowers on the lavender as winter fodder for the finches, the dead heads of hydrangeas, achilleas and sedums because they offer a degree of winter decoration especially when frosted or powdered with snow. The dead remains of a number of ornamental grasses can be similarly rewarding and I am thinking particularly of Stipa tenuissima or the loftier miscanthus species. All herbaceous perennials reduced to dead stems should be attacked with shears without a moment's hesitation.
As I shiver in my long johns I am always warmed by the sight of plants that come to life in winter, plants that should always be included when planning a garden initially. Amongst a landscape consisting mainly of bare twigs under a grey sky, the sight of the long, drooping catkins of Garrya elliptica 'James Roof', a thug of a shrub that needs plenty of space, is always spirit-enhancing. I don't know whether you have ever admired a Robert Adams fireplace: the swags that he included are shaped on these very catkins.
About the best tree I know for winter blossoms is Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis' because it flowers throughout mild spells in winter with a final whoosh in early spring. A. s. 'Autumnalis Rosea' has pink as opposed to white flowers if that is what you prefer.
One of the arts of gardening is to juxtapose plants whose flowers complement each other, thus forcing them to become intimate bedfellows. We all have our passions about certain plants, and that is how it should be. So far as I am concerned I don't particularly like Cotoneaster horizontalis or Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) when they are planted on their own. However, when the red berries of the former entangle with the yellow flowers of the latter at this time of year they do make a welcome contribution to the garden. They sing together in harmony.
Another even better flower combination, a treat to look forward to in late spring, is Clematis alpina 'Frances Rivis', whose blue and white flowers look a million dollars when intermingled with pink, red and white apple blossom. Try it.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the best way to ensure 'winter interest' in any garden, however small, is to include topiary. The word derives from the name of a gardener in ancient Rome, Topiarius, who was famous for the artful way in which he shaped plants. You will have to wait a few years for your shape to take form, but patience is the nature of gardening in our climate. Common yew (Taxus baccata), an indigenous tree tolerant of all sorts of soils and aspects so long as it grows in a well-drained soil, is an evergreen favourite for being clipped.
All you have to do is to buy a small specimen, plant it where you want to create your eventual shape - fantasy bird, battleship or whatever else you have in mind - and then ignore it for about four years. During that time it will bush out and put down strong roots. Then comes the exciting part, the clipping process which continues annually until the shape is achieved. It will need to be clipped every year in August thereafter.
The joy of yew is that its branches can be bent at angles without breaking, which is why it was used to make strongbows, and why it is also particularly suitable if you want to create something like a human form with outstretched arms, for example. You must indulge in your own fantasy, however bizarre: but you may find it easier to start with a geometric shape, a pyramid perhaps, which is most easily achieved by first delineating its four edges using four bamboo canes. A tiered wedding cake is great fun to make and acts as a reminder that yew is NOT so slow growing, as it puts on about one foot a year, and so after 10 years you're shaping the tenth tier with the use of a step ladder.
Finally, if you have not already cut your garden hedge, look to see if there is a healthy young tree growing in it. Tie a red ribbon on it to prevent it from being cut and allow the tree to romp away in successive years.