Gardening Journalist

Country Life Magazine

The winter garden

Roddy Llewellyn tells a winter's tale
- all about his garden

Roddy Llewellyn - a winters tale

This morning I was on the top of a ladder tying back my wisteria whose supporting wire had snapped in recent strong winds.

My wife, Tania, had always wanted the delicious scent of this plant to pervade our bedroom through open windows on balmy evenings, and that is exactly what happens through May and June.

I look round to admire the magnificent view we have here, a large chunk of England stretch some 30 miles on a 45 degree axis, with hardly a hint of the 21st century in sight. Didcot Power Station looks like a group of doll's egg-cups a mere 17 miles away. How lucky, I thought, I am to live here.

With good views, however, come strong winds, hence the wisteria's plight. I only planted it ten years ago and it has already filled out to a handsome framework.

My ancient house, which I share very happily with my wife and three daughters, has water running underneath it (it was the village pub for hundreds of years and water used to flow through the cellar to keep the beer cool even on the hottest days in summer) and that is why my wisteria is so happy. Wisterias hate the dry and that is the reason why they can prove reluctant to flower.

The core of the stone-built house is supposed to date back to 1350. This doesn't surprise me. The beams, the inglenook fireplaces, and the staircase with its massively wide boards and worn balustrades all exude a patina of olden days as romantically depicted on old prints.

Roddy under a Plumbago PlantThe later additions, probably 16th or 17th century, are no less appealing. Oh that I could echo the past and smoke a clay pipe in my smock chewing the cud with a neighbor! But modern day dictates we must all run around chasing our tails.

We came to live here 11 years ago. The one-acre garden strongly resembled the abandoned site of a recently staged hoodlum convention. Starting from a blank canvase, however messy, is always more exciting when it comes to planning gardens, because you do not have to work aroundother people's ideas.

Right from the start I was determined that my garden would look as good as possible during the winter months, an important consideration often overlooked. After all, gardens are to be enjoyed for 12 months of the year.

The temperature climate of the UK makes it possible for us to grow plants from all over the world. This is just as well as the number on indigenous species is pitifully small. There are several winter-flowering plants which include Lonicera fragrantissima (winter flowering honeysuckle) from China, Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet) also from China, and Viburnum x bodnantsense 'Charles Lamont' (a cultivar from north temperate regions) and particularly showy.

Roddy LlewellynIt is this lack of bold colour in the garden in the depths of winter that makes it all the more important to create strong structure that stands out boldly even on the dullest day. I am thinking of hedges and topiary, as well as sculpture and ornamentation, animate and inanimate.

Evergreen trees are a bonus, but the smaller garden has not got the room for them. There exists a worrying fashion in this country for planting leylandii hedging. It is, of course irresistible because it is evergreen and grows very fast, but left to its own devices such a hedge can become a monster, depriving gardens of light and taking all the goodness and nutrients from the soil for some distance from its base. The first thing I did in this garden was to remove 30 of them because they were obscuring our magnificent view.

Using common yew (Taxus baccata) as hedging I have framed the vistas I have made in this garden. Towards the centre of the garden I added a circule using the same trees. Such a shape comes in handy in designing a garden especially where there exist angular lines, especially boundaries, as it succeeds in softening them. To the front of the house I have also added cut into tiers ('wedding cake') and another as a cone emerging from a square. Such evergreen topiary shapes, and I have included a number more, remain as handsome green statues even on the gloomiest of days.

My mixed borders include one 'design' element that I consider to be of great importance. These are common box (Buxus sempervirens) clipped as circles and egg shapes measuring approimately one metre in diameter and height.

Staturay and other objects in a gardenIn summer, these shapes are surrounded by herbacious perennials whose lax and untidy habbit contrasts so effectively with their clipped uniformity. In winter they play an even stronger role once the perennials have died down and been cleared away. Without them there would be nothing in my borders for several months of the year save bare earth.

I needed to protect this border from the prevailing wind, and this I have achieved by introducing a large ball at one end using clipped Portugal laurel (Prunus lusitanica).

I am a strong believer that motor cars should not be seen from the garden if at all possible. After all, they make their presence felt everywhere else you go. So, I decided to surround the drive with a tall hedge of common beech (Fagus sylcatica). Within seven years this extensive hedge means when I am in the garden there is never a car in sight.

There is a danger that tall hedges can feel oppressive, so what I have done is to cut gothic windows into them. These small opening offer views of the garden from both sides. I have also introduced four arches through this beech hedge, one taller than the hedge with a gothic arch surmounting it, each offering a different route to take around the garden.

I have been designing gardens for many years now, and have grown to recognise the importance of staturay and other objects in a garden. At all times of the year they arrest the eye - event in the depths of winter. Choice of such inanimate objects is, of course, personal, and so is their positioning within the landscape. I have had great fun assembling a number of 'eye-arresters' for my garden.

At one end of a vista I have inclued a giant white tulip against a wall and an elegant bench at the other. The two 'vista-stoppers' at either end of the other long vista are a mirror and a replica model of the village church. I have had a gate made to look like a spider's web and have put a giant pair of spectacles on the roof. Eccentric perhaps, but fun none the less. All these ingredients in my garden give me the greatest of pleasure, even on the greyest of winter days.