If there’s one thing my garden will never be accused of, it’s being too neat and tidy.
From the first sighting of spring’s new and vibrant shoots, through the gay abandon of exuberant summer and on into the rich colour and swirling leaves of autumn, order is way down the list of my garden’s priorities. There are far too many lovely things to grow for me to consider giving houseroom to any more boring evergreens than the few token box balls by the front path.
That is until the time inevitably comes when all the lovely things withdraw below ground to patiently wait out the cold dark days of winter and I’m grudgingly forced to admit that far from being boring, it’s the evergreens in the garden which give it form, structure and a strong winter silhouette.
Throughout the rest of the year the formality of clipped hedges, the mounds of evergreen shrubs and the balls, cones and spirals of topiary are like corsetry, they underpin and support the billowing skirts of all the blowsy flowers, unobtrusive and discretely hard working, just waiting for their time to shine.
And here it is. In the cold grip of winter the box, privet, holly, laurel and yew stand solid and dependable, marking out the lines of the garden, unflinching in the teeth of biting winds and freezing temperatures and now the very thing I condemn them for, being static and immobile, becomes a virtue.
Their dense foliage offers a perfect shelter for over wintering insects and a hunting ground for hungry insectivorous birds. A bitter night’s frost sees them dusted with icing sugar and a fall of snow exaggerates their shape, transforming the ordinary into oversized chess pieces from Alice In Wonderland.
The smaller and denser the leaves the finer the texture and the easier the plant is to trim into elaborate shapes, this and their ability to throw out new shoots from mature wood has made yew and box the plants of choice for formal hedging and topiary for centuries.
If plain dark green is just too dull, lots of conifers come in coloured leaved forms from the subtle blue grey and dramatic spire of Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow’, a good choice for a focal point, to the many yellow leaved varieties of Chamaecyparis lawsoniana like ‘Golden Wonder’, better restricted to town gardens as the strong colour stands out like a sore thumb in a rural landscape.
The main drawback of most conifers, Taxus and Thuja being the exception, is that they don’t re-grow from old wood and their lack of regular care is responsible for some of the ugliest plants ever to disgrace a garden.
For coloured leaves of a different kind holly is very versatile, happy to grow in sun and shade it has lots of variegated forms with flowers to attract holly blue butterflies, berries for the birds and of course still as popular as ever for Christmas decorations.
Hampton Court, Herefordshire