A Winter's Tale

“See, Winter comes to rule the varied year, Sullen and sad.”

- James Thomson (1700–48), The Seasons (1746), "Winter"

The “killing frost” is a sinister-sounding weather phenomenon that descends every year as the days shorten and the temperature drops. “Tomato frosts” are lighter, earlier cold snaps, not lethal to most of the plants in your garden. But the killing frost is as ominous as it sounds; it heralds our turning in, both physically and emotionally, and signals the end of the growing season.

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Winter is chilly in spirit as well as actuality, and its onset sends shivers down the spine of any sun lover. In Chinese medicine, each season is ascribed an emotion, and that of winter is fear. Everything in nature is dying, dormant or hanging on by a thread, and on a deep and primordial level, we dread that the darkest season may never end. But as the solstice nears and the sun shines all the more briefly and weakly, fear not – winter is not without its own stark beauty and in some ways, bounty. You just have to know where to look. (Also, am I the only misanthrope who finds Midsummer totally depressing? It means the days are shortening already, and it’s only June! Scoff all you want, but if you’ve ever lived in Northern Europe, you well know how grim a prospect all that darkness can be.)

Tree in snow

Summer is a time of abundance in the garden, when we’re drunk on the giddiness of sunshine, flowers and fruit. Winter, however, is a time of quiet reflection, of structure and form. The tree that blinded you with opulent autumn foliage now stands starkly silhouetted against a pale sky. The evergreen that provided a subtle backdrop to spring’s mob of bulbs is now a lonely sentinel in a much sparser landscape. But categorically, the winter garden is not an empty one.

Wisley grass borders in December  Photo: Royal Horticultural Society

Garden centers and grocery stores offer aggressively cheerful pots of color year-round, but I can’t get behind clusters of glaring red cyclamen when the days are short and sunlight is feeble. Plants that bloom in winter tend to have a subtlety and elegance to them that might get lost in the dog days of summer.

Helleborus niger

Helleborus orientalis and helleborus niger, for example, (Lenten rose and Christmas rose respectively) have slender, nodding flower heads that come in a range of colors from palest ivory to deepest purple-black. H. orientalis is a better choice for warm-winter climates and flowers between February and April; h. niger fares well from Northern California to the U.K. andflowers in January and February (not, misleadingly, at Christmastime. Nor are they roses, for that matter). Both combine well with Rosy Maidenhair fern (Adiantum hispidulum), Aquilegia vulgaris (columbines), Heuchera (coral bells), Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) or Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica.

From top L: Adiantum hispidulum, Aquilegia vulgaris 'Winky Mix,' Heuchera 'Plum Pudding,' Zantedeschia aethiopica, Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica

Chaenomeles (flowering quince) is a relatively ordinary looking shrub for most of the year, but as early as January, it’s blossom breaks open and stuns.

Chaenomeles japonica & YSL Rouge Volupté in Extreme Coral

The species is coral – very old lady’s lipstick, which in my books is a great thing – but the cultivar “Apple Blossom” is delicately white with a little blush of pink, like a wash of watercolor across its petals. To up the ante March through December, choose C. speciosa contorta, which has insanely twisted branches and seems to clamber over itself in a scramble to nowhere. The loony/inspired Arrowhead Alpines Nursery refers to it as “the Dee Snyder of quinces.” I love California. (And Twisted Sister?? Gulp.)

Chaenomeles speciosa contorta

Part of winter’s subtlety is its soft light; the sun hangs lower in the sky and hits us at a gentler angle, with a softer glow. Certain plants have a particular gift for catching this luminescent quality and sparkling like crystal when backlit. Molinia caerulea "Variegata" (variegated moor grass) and Panicum virgatum “Heavy Metal” (switch grass) catch the autumn and winter low-in-the-sky light and glisten better than any hideous garden orb or glittery reindeer. (Two metal references in one post? Yikes, I may be letting on more than I should about my misspent Californian youth.) Molinia is said to resent dry ground (so bitter) and is native from Britain to Siberia. Panicum can withstand heavy winds and is native to the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. Both look sublime planted with Echinacea purpurea and Verbena bonariensis.

Inset from Left: Molinia caerulea 'Variegata,' Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal,' Echinacea purpurea. Background: Verbena bonariensis

Common gardening “wisdom” will tell you to hack off the head of every perennial in autumn, like some bloated, heirless Tudor king. “The autumn tidy up” is as boring as it sounds, and contemporary plantsmen don’t bother. Netherlands-based Piet Oudolf is king of the “New Wave” in gardening, and his naturalistic plantings are deceptively simple, often set amid starkly geometric forms. Oudolf has – mercifully – put paid to this annual frenzy of decapitation.

Oudolf Winter Garden Photo: Piet Oudolf

“Books often state that perennials should be cut down in the autumn, without any explanation as to why. Any experience we have gained about plants in the wild would suggest that this rule looks absurd … there is nothing in nature to cut down wild perennials in the autumn, every autumn. The rule, then, seems to have nothing to do with success or failure in cultivation; instead, it is more to do with human intolerance of nature’s untidiness.” - Piet Oudolf

I have almost inhumanly high tolerance for untidiness, coupled with exceptionally high levels of, shall we call it, laissez faire. In good conscience I can’t call myself lazy – I have two sons under the age of 6; lazy is a pipedream – but I have never, ever subscribed to the school of perfectionism or extraneous work. And who are we to try to perfect nature anyway? Flip the old school penchant for tidiness completely on its head, and instead choose plants who provide interest long after their traditionally appreciated season of interest has ended.

Clockwise from top L: Achillea, Eryngium, Echinops, Rudbeckia

Achillea filipendulina, Eryngium giganteum, Rudbeckia, Echinops ritro – all offer structural and striking seedheads every bit as interesting as their petalled spring blooms. Structure is important, and winter is its time. After all, you can’t be truly stunning without good bones, and winter is the time to see them – stripped down, pared back and starkly beautiful.