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Making the most of a garden in winter – Marcus Barnett one of the leading garden and landscape designers

Marcus Barnett

Once November arrives and the leaves have fallen, too many gardens become a desolate place which people abandon. But with a bit of thought and planning it is possible to create gardens that provide pleasure throughout winter. Marcus Barnett, the garden and landscape garden designer, who is a multiple gold medallist at Chelsea, does not believe the answer is to ship in containers of unseasonably bright flowers – he prefers a more sustainable and natural approach.

‘Winter is the best time to think about the design of a garden. You can see the bones of it and assess its structure and the forms within it much more easily without the froth of foliage.  It is also the best time to see the different vistas your garden contains and consider how they frame and lead the eye to specific features. It is always important to consider the views of a garden from inside as well as outside a house – especially in winter. Start by looking at the views of a garden from the most commonly used rooms. 

The extent to which views of the surrounding area should be embraced or screened off depends on whether you live in glorious countryside or next to a building you would rather not see. Fields and hedgerows can look stunning in winter and yet people often allow trees in their garden to encroach on what would otherwise be a beautiful view. Winter is the perfect time to make decisions about what you do and don’t want to see.

The low winter sun leads to dramatic variations in the play of light – accentuating the landform and making it more interesting and beautiful than at any other time of year. It pays anyone thinking about redesigning their garden to observe how the light changes during winter – what disappears into deepest shadow, where the light falls and what forms are emphasised.  

Water, whether moving or still, is attractive at any time of year and adding a rill or well-designed pond gives an extra dimension to a garden all year round. A well-lit water feature is a particularly good way to add movement and interest. 

Topiary can also at its most effective in winter. Well-placed box balls soften the harsher edges of a garden and can be complemented by evergreen hedges, grasses, generous urns and other statuary. Together they help to create a sense of place. If a garden is well laid out, a heavy frost can make it every bit as beautiful as it is spring or summer – just in a different way.  

Creating a focal point is a good way to distract the eye away from any bleak or less attractive areas in winter. A sculpture can make a huge difference to a garden and a striking contemporary sculpture will often work just as well as a statue that is the perfect match in style and date with any nearby architecture. However, great care should always be taken on how a sculpture is displayed in terms of the plinth it is on, for example, and the way it sits within the space. If in doubt, err on the large side – sculptures which are too small for an area look mean.  

When clematis and most other climbers have died back, garden buildings become much more visible. So it pays to think about the materials used to build them as well as how they can provide a retreat from the cold. If possible, position them so they offer protection from the prevailing wind but still catch some warmth from the winter sun. Planting an effective wind screen or building a wall will make your garden more hospitable for plants as well as you. A really sheltered spot can make it possible to enjoy a garden at just about any time of year. 

Many people now have a fire pit with seating and outdoor heaters for entertaining over the cooler months. However, such areas do not necessarily add to the overall beauty of a garden, so think of them as ‘outside rooms’ and create carefully placed openings or ‘doorways’ to provide well-framed views of the garden while still keeping them relatively discreet.    

The movement of flickering torches is a great way to add drama when hosting a winter party. The rest of the time, good garden lighting can be used to draw attention to a water feature, sculpture or the contrasting textures of grasses and surrounding shrubs lining a path. Energy efficient LED lights have now made the cost of using garden lighting surprising low and a little light goes a long way in the dark. One-watt lights are often all that’s needed, unless you are up-lighting a large tree, for example.’

A few practicalities can make a big difference in encouraging people to use a garden in winter. If a garden is prone to being waterlogged or muddy – particularly near the house – then either tackle the problem of drainage (which can be relatively straightforward) or lay a path or terrace to overcome the problem. Wearing wellies should never be an essential part of enjoying a garden. If there is direct access to your garden from the kitchen, for example, that is great but the chances are you still won’t want muddy children to come charging straight in on a wet day. So, if you have a boot room or utility room, it really pays to spend a bit of time and effort making access to the garden as attractive as possible – and not via some dark, dank, overgrown path.

Winter may not be as colourful as summer but a frosted spider’s web can be just as magical as a flower in full bloom.’     

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