Creating a winter garden

I have been looking over my own small garden, thinking ruefully that it does look drab. A winter garden can easily enough be a showplace, a treat for all the senses. It was a real revelation to me when we visited the RHS garden at Wisley shortly before Christmas and saw their winter garden. Alternatively, I could have a winter wildlife garden. Stonehouse has a small winter wildlife garden situated by the London bound platform of the Stonehouse railway station. It is designed and planted and maintained by the Stonehouse Gardening Club. 

The Sensuous Winter garden: At the RHS garden at Wisley, seed heads that look like patches of dark crushed velvet have been left on tall winter-blackened sedums, to provide striking counterpoint to showy, arching grasses that have dried to shades of gold or bronze in the winter, and which sport feathery seed heads that sway and rustle. That combination of plants and grasses is something I can replicate in my own garden to good effect.

Feathery seed heads glow in the winter sun at RHS Garden Wisley. An example of winter garden ideas for members of the Stonehouse Gardening Club
Feathery seed heads glow in the winter sun at RHS Garden Wisley
Photo by Zara Ramaniah

Thrumming, rustling and clacking sounds complement the visual display of a well-designed winter garden, and are often accompanied by the heady scents of winter flowering bushes. In one section of the Wisley garden, reeds with strange shaped heads perform as wind instruments as well as percussion, in harmony with the music of softer silken voiced grasses. My own garden, alas, is sodden and brown and far from appealing, but I have learned from the RHS, and mean to design a winter garden that delights the senses. Or I could have a winter wildlife garden.

Reeds with strange shaped heads perform as wind instruments as well as percussion
The vivid stems of cornus juxtaposed with a silvery collection of ghost bramble bring a shot of colour and interest to a winter garden (RHS Wisley in December)
Photo by Zara Ramaniah

The Winter Wildlife Garden:  The Stonehouse Gardening Club garden is a public garden, but the same plants can be successfully used in the home garden. The planting scheme was suggested by Austen Perkins, horticulturist and member of the Stonehouse Gardening Club. He and other Stonehouse Gardening Club members planted mahonia, vibernum, winter honeysuckle, and other winter flowering shrubs to provide berries, winter nectar and shelter for birds, insects and other small wildlife throughout the year. In addition, stalks which are cut down in autumn, such as the Michaelmas daisies, are left in clumps by the wall to provide winter habitat.

The Stonehouse Gardening Club team prepares the winter wildlife garden by the railway station to support Stonehouse in Bloom
The Stonehouse Gardening Club team prepares the Winter Wildlife Garden by Stonehouse railway Station sto support Stonehouse in Bloom
Photo by Cherry Foster

The incentive for the Stonehouse Gardening Club was to contribute to the success of Stonehouse in Bloom. Stonehouse Gardening Club volunteers sow wildflower seeds and have planted herbaceous plants for a summer show as well, but the gardening club’s focus is on providing food and shelter for birds, insects and small mammals in winter, when there is so little available. Whenever there is sunshine, the flowers are covered in bees and other insects. 

Stonehouse Gardening Club planted honeysuckle and daphne to their Winter Wildlife Garden in Stonehouse by the train station
Honeysuckle and Daphne bring scent and colour to the winter wildlife garden
Photo by Cherry Foster

The Stonehouse Gardening Club like to think the garden also brings some pleasure to people passing by, or just waiting for trains. For instance, the showy mahonia flowering at the moment is a visually appealing and highly scented delight to all passers-by, and its luscious purple bead like seeds will be relished by blackbirds when the flowers are over. 

Stonehouse Gardening Club’s Winter Wildlife Garden:

Planting scheme for the Stonehouse Gardening Club garden. The choice for round the year interest and providing wildlife friendly ground cover to secure front edge are ajuga reptans, geraniums macrorhizum and sanguineum, polygonum affine, pulmonaria trevi fountain and erica darlyensis. Future ground cover plants may include crocus, autumn cyclamen, lenten roses, aquilegia, primroses, self-heal and marjoram.

Words by Elizabeth Goddard and Cherry Foster