Let me a conjure a vision – a late December afternoon as the sunlight begins to fade and the shadows deepen, the trees are skeletal, an elegant tracery against the translucence of a winter sky. The wind swirls among the fallen leaves hustling them into corners to hide among the glowing stems of Cornus and flirt with the last of the autumn crocus. The faint perfume of winter box teases the senses as you hunt for signs of the first snowdrops sheltering between the mounds of primroses. The holly hedge is garlanded ready for Advent, as yet its scarlet berries shunned by the blackbirds in favour of the windfall apples.
A cruel delusion, a mere figment that drifts through the mind’s eye, images sown from the artful photography in a glossy gardening magazine. In a garden that has no trees, no architectural evergreen shrubs nor graceful seed heads to be glazed with hoar-frost, it is easy to become prey to seasonal gardening angst and serious plant or even garden envy.
Sitting on the bench in the cottage garden contemplating the changes to be made for next year, it was hard not to be disappointed by the forlorn and bleak nature of the garden. The debris from the last gale has been cleared away and I have been busy weeding and mulching, but it still looks neglected. The garden has retreated into the earth. Tufts of dry bleached stems, scorched evergreen branches and tangles of shredded stems are all that is left the summer’s ebullience. However if I raise my gaze, the vista is so awe-inspiring that the interplay of light, clouds and sea sweeps my tattered winter garden into insignificance.
My feeble efforts could never compete with the landscape, but there is always room for improvement. Sometimes you just have to sit and hope the gardening muse will strike. As the sun made a brief appearance, illuminating a stand of fennel stems, I reached for my camera and realised that in viewing the bigger picture I was missing the point. In the summer the cottage garden is a tapestry of colours, a magic carpet that sweeps the eye over the wall and beyond. Individually the flowers are lovely and merit attention, but it is the combination of colour, form and texture that makes the garden live. In winter the scale is too big and the colours too soft for the garden to borrow the landscape and become part of the panorama. In the garden where the colours are subdued, texture and form become ascendant and the mood grows contemplative. The gaze is drawn not to distant horizons but is focused on a series of transient, minimalist miniatures.
The relationship between structure and light are the foundation of the winter garden. If the bones are elegant the garden will always be beautiful. I had been momentarily seduced in wishing for the moon and had failed to see the potential for paradise beneath my feet. Sometimes we just need a nudge and I am grateful to Cathy (The Rock in November) for providing the inspiration.