December and January are the perfect months in which to reassess your garden – in terms of the previous year’s successes, your ambitions for next year and your plans for structural changes you might decide to make.
The leaves have fallen from deciduous trees and shrubs. They have all been swept up and added to your leaf mold bin ready to break down into next winter’s leaf mold. Many perennial herbaceous plants have died back and are either displaying winter stems and seed heads or have been cut back and composted. Annuals are, similarly, in your compost bins rotting down to provide mulch in about a year’s time. In the vegetable garden most of the harvest has been safely gathered in. Your garden is at its most stark and sparse. Add to this the peculiar quality of cold, low, slanting winter light and you have the perfect conditions in which to critically re-evaluate the design and balance of your garden and plan what changes you want to make over the next year.
In no particular order, here are four elements to consider when giving your garden it’s annual appraisal:
Study the lines of your garden. You will want any paths or arrangement of borders to lead somewhere – it may be to a practical destination (like the front door) or it could be to some focal point, such as a favourite pot, statue or water feature. You may also want your vista to draw the eye to borrowed landscape features (that is something beyond the boundary of your own garden). This could be a view, or distinctive tree – or maybe an attractive building on the horizon.
The edges of flower beds get untidy during the year, planting plans may change and existing plants mature – all of which mean that your beds may no longer be the right shape or size. Using a rope or hosepipe reshape the border. You can move the rope/hose around the new outline of the border and then stand back – look at it from an upstairs window, even - until you are happy that the shape is right. Next, go along the edge of the rope/hose with your border spade or half-moon shaped edging iron and dig out a shallow trench marking the new outline. Once you have done this for all of the borders you plan to change and you are happy with how they all relate to one another you can start to dig over the reshaped bed(s). Remove the top layer of turf with your spade (or a turfing iron) and re-use it. It can fill in bald patches in your grass, be used to build up hollows in existing lawn or you can create a turf stack. If you store the turfs upside-down they will gradually rot down and create some topsoil for future use. Dig over your new border at the beginning of winter, turning the earth over to bury any remaining grass. and any frosts will help break up the clods of earth and kill unwanted greenery.
Hard landscaping is the non-plant element of your garden – terracing, paths, walls and structures. These permanent features come into their own in the winter when much else has died back. Think about the texture: stone, brick or wood structures, gravel, paved or grass terraces. Try to marry the material used to its environment. For example, a meandering bark path through a woodland garden would be more sympathetic than one made of tarmac. Think also about practicality and purpose – a boundary wall is immediate and will give greater privacy than a hedge and whereas it costs more initially it needs less longer-term maintenance. However, if you are creating a barrier against the wind then a hedge will be more effective as it filters the wind while a wall will create turbulence.
These come into their own in the winter months when they are starkly revealed. Tightly clipped evergreens give colour and shape all year round and form a pleasing contrast to the comings and goings of bulbs and perennials during the year. Hornbeam, when clipped will keep most of its dead brown leaves throughout the winter adding extra colour and texture. Some deciduous trees have wonderful barks. The birch tree Betula utilis, for example has a ghostly while trunk while the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has a spectacular peeling bark that turns orange/red in winter. Both trees also have attractive leaves and form which extend the interest throughout the year.
As you can see when you look at the great gardens of France, good design looks good all year round. None of us is going to have a garden on the scale of Versailles or Villandry, but we can ensure that our own patch of France has the bone structure which enables us to enjoy its appearance 12 months of the year.
This blog is taken from the gardening section of The Local Buzz - a magazine for the SW of France. You can find out more about The Local Buzz here: https://www.thelocalbuzzmag.com/