Four-season garden still blazes with beauty in winter

The first snowdrops at Beth Chatto - Mrs McNamara always flowers on New Year's Day.

The first snowdrops at Beth Chatto - Mrs McNamara always flowers on New Year's Day. - Credit: Archant

The award-winning Beth Chatto Gardens is full of hardy plants that thrive in the cold and are available to turn your own garden into a winter wonderland.

Beth Chatto garden and nursery director David Ward in the Water Garden. Piucture: Archant

Beth Chatto garden and nursery director David Ward in the Water Garden. Piucture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Beth Chatto Gardens, in Elmstead Market, just outside Colchester, celebrates all the seasons with its frostily majestic winter plants the rival of the brand-new blooms of spring or summer’s riotous colours.

The OBE-awarded plantswoman who began the gardens that bare her name in 1960 and went on to wine ten consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show was always keen to use plants adapted by nature to thrive in different conditions. Now aged 95, she leaves the day-to-day management of the seven-acre garden to her dedicated and experienced team, among them David Ward. The garden and nursery director says the gardens in winter may not draw the crowds of the warmer months, but they have a unique beauty.

He talks lovingly of the woodland garden soon to be suffused with delicate drifts of a wide variety of snowdrops, selected so there are blooms from the start of the new year through to April, and the “wonderful scent” on mild, still days coming from the two fragrant sarcococca as you enter the garden.

Then there are the winter aconites, “which are starting to come through”, with their yellow flowers giving a golden glow even on sunless days and a striking selections of European common dogwood that frame the garden’s ponds with yellow stems flushed with coral red that are at their most colourful in winter.

Skippia japonica produces dark red flower buds in winter. Picture: Archant

Skippia japonica produces dark red flower buds in winter. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant


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More winter colour is provided by the bergenias, the leaves of which, as cooler weather sets in, develop rich winter colouring - maroon, crimson, bronze and even beetroot red. Brightest of all the varieties is B. ‘Eric Smith’, created by the well-known UK plantsman and named after him when introduced in the 1970s by Beth Chatto. “They really stand out in the winter,” says David. In winter snowdrops dart about them.

Such dramatic juxtaposition is the hallmark of an award-winning plantswoman such as Beth Chatto and her inspirational, informal ethos carries on through her staff. David, who has been employed at the gardens since 1983, says: “We are all instilled in the way of the garden here. Everyone who works here is passionate about plants.”

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“The garden is still about finding the right plant for the right place as it was 50 or so years ago when it began. It’s not all about flowers and colour, we look at differing foliage and the shape or form of plants.”

In the Gravel Garden, which is a tapestry of shapes and textures in the winter months, David says “there is barely a flower in sight, but it looks fantastic because of the plants’ foliage and form”. There are plantings of verbena whose seed heads turn jet black in winter and stand out among the green, silver and gold foliage and straw coloured grasses.

Dogwood bring winter colour to the water garden at Beth Chatto. Picture: Archant

Dogwood bring winter colour to the water garden at Beth Chatto. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Such deliberate, thoughtful planting extends throughout the garden. Even David’s favourites, the snowdrops that are scattered now and will soon spring unbridled in the garden, are carefully planted.

“We always plant them under deciduous shrubs,” says David, “so they are sheltered and can benefit from the rich, fertile soil as they grow.”

As well as a treat for the eyes, David says that many snowdrops have a stunning scent. “On a still day you really catch it as you walk among them. You could have one in your house, although not before Candlemas Day on February 2 as that’s bad luck, and it would provide a great scent.”

Some varieties of snowdrops, including G. ‘Mrs McNamara’, which always flowers on New Year’s Day, and is named, David tells me, after “Dylan Thomas’s mother-in-law as the variety was originally discovered in her garden”, can already be seen in the woodland garden.

Sarcococcas with its sweet scented flowers welcomes you to the Woodland Garden.

Sarcococcas with its sweet scented flowers welcomes you to the Woodland Garden. - Credit: Archant

They are also available to purchase at the Beth Chatto Garden nursery along with many other winter flowering favourites such as hellebores and skimmia. The plants for sale are mostly propagated from the garden’s plants. Using traditional methods and growing the plants outside ensures that you’ll be taking home a hardy, healthy specimen.

At this time of year The Beth Chatto Gardens are open from 9am. to 4pm. Monday to Saturday and from 10am. to 4pm. on Sunday. For more information, visit here

David picks his top five winter plants, all available from the Beth Chatto Gardens nursery, to liven up your garden in the coming months.

1. Helleborus niger ‘Jonas’

“This is a new variety of Christmas rose. It’s flowering now and has big white flowers and may flush pink as they age in the cooler weather.”

2. Skimmia Japonica ‘Rubella’

“An evergreen shrub. It is red when in bud and then opens out into wonderful pink flowers.”

3. Asplenium scolopendrium

“This is the evergreen hart’s tongue fern. It provides lovely, fresh, apple green foliage.”

4. Galanthus ‘James Backhouse’

“This is an unusual, early variety of snowdrop. It flowers throughout January. It does well in the garden.”

5. Heuchera

“This is an evergreen perennial of which comes in a multitude of foliage colours. Some are mottled, some are marbled. They look amazing.”

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