Garden design Bristol, Somerset & London
Achieving a planting scheme with year-round interest can feel like the epitome of successful garden design. Sustaining this balance through the colder, wetter and darker months is often the biggest challenge. The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire are famed for their Winter Garden, so I set off last weekend to see how it was looking in the middle of January.
You exit the ticket office into an expanse of open land, that all felt at bit bleak and exposed on a dull midwinter's day. But no sooner do you turn the corner, around a stunning mass of Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Beauty' and Salix alba 'Golden Ness', then you find yourself at the beginning of a remarkable sensory journey.
The initial large block planting of brightly coloured stems is a clever device: it is such a visual jolt that you forget the world behind you, and become immersed in the fun of looking for the next surprise. These come often, and in different guises: just down the path, a mixed planting of low evergreen and deciduous shrubs is strikingly punctuated with the fascinating textures of paperbark maple Acer griseum. Cornus and Salix specimens feature again, but here they appear more subtly, dotted through the planting in individual mixed colours. The fallen leaves of the deciduous shrubs and trees, left as a mulch, provide a lovely purple-brown background that both sets off the stem colours and holds the composition together.
The garden uses massed plantings to brilliant effect. As with the initial entrance feature each theme is rich and intense, and then softens out and drifts into the periphery of the next border, where a new theme takes over. This method creates an engaging rhythm that flows naturally through the garden, tempering moments of visual intensity with quieter meanderings. Views are framed, hidden and revealed through the use of tall glossy-leaved evergreen shrubs and conifers.
Contrasts are used to stunning effect. In the image above left, the bright red stems of Cornus alba 'Sibirica' emerge from a bed of variegated Carex 'Ice Dance', against a purple-black backdrop of Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Tom Thumb'. On the right, clumps of evergreen Libertia peregrinans, which turns from green to yellowy-orange as the temperature drops, sings out against a background of blue-black Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'.
The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens holds the National Plant Collection of Hamamelis (along with 13 other plant collections). In flower right now, in shades of pale lemon through to deep burnt orange, their scent is another marvel. Numerous varieties and cultivars are distributed throughout the entire gardens, along with plentiful other plants that are beautifully scented at this time of year including Mahonia, Sarcococca and Daphne.
If this is all beginning to sound like sensory overload, it's worth affirming that the gardens also have plenty of quiet and gentle spaces. There are woodland walks, water and bog gardens, classic borders and groves of bamboo. All of them have places to sit, relax, and enjoy the surroundings in peaceful solitude.
I'm planning on returning when the dogwoods are in leaf in early Summer, and again to see the colours of Autumn, to take photos of the extraordinary transformations that will no doubt be unfolding as the seasons progress.