Is winter interest interesting?

by AnneWareham on February 4, 2015

Post image for Is winter interest interesting?

The term ‘interest’ in relation to gardens has irritated me for years. Partly because the use of the word seems totally wrong and I’ve found it hard to say why. I think it’s actually because interest (apart from when applied to money) implies thinking, or curiosity – an active reaching out to know more. Which really has little to do with how it is commonly used in relation to the garden, when it usually becomes a noun which refers to something attractive or good to look at.

Beige is beautiful

Beige is beautiful

And anyway, it is one of the clichés we resort to in garden descriptions, along with ‘lovely’ and no doubt many more tiresome words and expressions which you needn’t trouble to remind me of.

When the term winter interest pops up it usually seems to mean a tiresome massing of the coloured stems of cornus such as ‘Midwinter Fire’, rubus with white stems and salix. All of these might be useful in the winter garden but it’s worth asking how.

Coloured salix  at Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

Coloured salix

Coloured cornus  at Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

Sorry – not as lurid as the most lurid ones..a cornus.

There seems to be a tendency to group them with other items of (ahem) ‘interest’. And I suppose that in a large garden, especially one which needs to open and make money all year round, there is some point in being able to advertise a winter garden, and one with as much mind boggling colour as possible will bring the visitors in. Especially if you add lots of snowdrops and colourful bulbs. But is this what we want in our gardens? I’ll rephrase that – is it what I want in my garden?

Sun on view of  Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

Beautiful?

I’ve realised it isn’t, (apart from the bulbs and I can wait for those) and not just because I’m not trying to attract winter visitors. For me, it’s a bit like woodland filled with colourful flowering plants – I don’t like the incongruity. I love British woodland in all its subtle diversity, at all times of year. And I have a tendency to take admiring pictures of ours – admiring the tree trunks, the play of light, the remnants of previous use and history. And the television…

Television in the Woods at  Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

Television in the woods..

Similarly, in the garden I enjoy the winter and various winter pleasures. Oh, especially the rare hoar frost on the hedges,

Frost on hedges at Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes

Frost! Better than snow, which tends to look lumpy

but also the sunlight on bare trees,

Winter view from Veddw Copyright Anne Wareham

Sunlight on trees

Reflections January 2014 Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

especially reflected sunlight…

and the particular wintery colours. My eyes were opened to the joys of the colours in our landscape by Kaffe Fasset  when I used to knit. He’s known for dramatic colour but he used and loves the subtle colours of the British landscape in winter. So I began to see them and love them too.

Kaffe Fasset inspired knitting Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham,

A poor (but my own) attempt to adopt Kaffe Fasset subtlety

We perhaps think of our landscape as dull and winter as grey – but when you begin to really look the variety and beauty of the colour – especially, it has to be admitted, when the sun shines – is amazing.

Hydrangea  Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

Ivy and dead leaves, at Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

Lamium  at Veddw, Copyrigh

Mahonia leaves  Veddw, Copyright Anne Wareham

And of course, when the snow or elusive hoar frost does come that is transforming and wonderful too. It was seeing Pat Webster’s post on winter interest (a really good garden and website there..) that drove me to this post. Partly because of her use of the term, but also for the subtlety and beauty of the images she chose to illustrate that theme. If you have permanent snow in winter hers is the eye to inspire you to see and appreciate winter beauty without garish, even in a white white landscape.

Perhaps all this  comes with age. Time is moving faster for me – and spring is coming sooner (though that’s nothing to do with my age). I used to be desperate for the first spring bulbs, but not so now. My tastes have changed. And sitting reading by the fire is a joy now we have finished the years of going out in the wet, cold and mud to make the garden.

Anne

Anne Wareham, portrait, copyright John Kingdon

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Ben Probert February 4, 2015 at 6:40 pm

For me ‘winter interest’ is just jargon I use for the more ‘general’ gardeners. As more of a plantsman myself (sorry Anne! 😉 ) I use a different language, especially with other plantspeople or more experienced gardeners; winter flowering, wintergreen, coloured stems, evergreen etc… I guess I use ‘winter interest’ as a very general term, like saying it’s raining but without giving any clue as to whether it’s drizzling or lashing it down. I personally find winter interest to be everywhere: fallen leaves, sunlight on stems, raindrops on branches, ice on a pond.

Plants that do something specific in winter should be given specific credit.

AnneWareham February 4, 2015 at 11:16 pm

Fair enough but it’s still a bizarre use of the word ‘interest’.

Janna Schreier February 4, 2015 at 8:13 pm

I completely agree. I have never been attracted to a random group of brightly coloured ‘things’, usually dominated by Cornus, as you say, with a few blue conifers thrown in for good measure. The type of picture that is on the front cover of ‘The Garden’ at this time of year. Your final group of photos, however, showing natural, more subtle beauty is quite simply ‘lovely’.

AnneWareham February 4, 2015 at 11:15 pm

Ha – lovely, eh?! O – I had totally forgotten the awful conifers! Am now speechless…..

Amy Murphy February 5, 2015 at 12:27 am

I don’t want to quibble about what is winter interest to one gardener from another, but I must point out that geography plays a large part in a garden’s winter character. I am sitting here in suburban Boston, Massachusetts where we have had a record snowfall of 41 inches in 10 days. Snow and ice and below 0 F temperatures are all a part of gardening in my zone 5. It is a challenge that not all gardeners have. The upside is the beauty of a snowbound garden. It may look predominantIy white, but there are many colors in a snowy landscape. And the landscape can change daily. Fluctuations in temperature cause changes to the color, amount, texture and location of snow. As the snow recedes the garden reemerges. The “interest” is less what the plants do they about what the environment they are in does around them. If I were to live in a zone that didn’t have as dramatic a climate, I might be more concerned about relying on plants to provide the interest.

AnneWareham February 5, 2015 at 9:38 am

Hi Amy, – that was partly why I included a link to Pat Webster’s site, as a contrasting climate. But I am in the uk, mostly without the snow challenge, more a tendency to gloom challenge – and where people think of introducing coloured branches and garish conifers to ‘brighten’ things up. Hence my – well, my post.

Adam Hodge February 5, 2015 at 10:39 am

Anne
Evidently beauty is in the eyes of the beholder !!!

For me the russet colours of dead Hydrangea flowers or grass stems or leaves of beech ,hornbeam or even Oak are unbelievably dull. Dull dull dull ! Dull and dead ! Dreary and dull ! About as dull as a not nice garden that nobody will write that its not a nice garden !
Whereas, the rainbow colours of Cornus stems especially the C sanguineum types or the bright pink of the zazzier C alba types are a tonic in the days of dull light and dull dead plants & leaves. Furthermore, carpets of Cyclamen, crocus or early dwarf Iris’s are as delightful as a few glasses of bubbly.

I recently planted a clients garden with carpets of cyclamen under their cedar trees. Whilst most of the rest of the garden is a non event at this time of year the Cedar trees floor is a veritable picture, especially compared to the previous leaf litter .

We will agree to differ !

AnneWareham February 5, 2015 at 11:02 am

Who said we’ll agree to differ,cheeky?

I think you might well, if you’re not careful,start noticing some more subtle pleasures now I’ve drawn your attention to them. Then what? Xxx

Adam Hodge February 5, 2015 at 11:12 am

A friend has been whooing me for many years to adopt the sentiment you have promoted. It’ll be a very long struggle for me to like dead.

I was amused at your choice of the word ‘subtle ‘, as dead never strikes me as subtle. The life has gone, the plant tissue has gone to ‘join the choirs invisibule’ It’s an ex stem,flower/leaf, devoid of its life. About as subtle as a coffin !!!

So glad that you might agree with me. xxxx

AnneWareham February 5, 2015 at 11:18 am

There’s so much more to winter beauty than the dead leaves. None so blind…..

Adam Hodge February 5, 2015 at 11:36 am

For all my posturing, I found the pic of the beech leaves and moss most striking…it is a sweet contrast of the neutrality of the fallen leaves with the luminosity of the moss. That as a principal in planting is most acceptable

Jane Stevens February 5, 2015 at 11:58 am

I end up a bit confused about whether it’s the bad words or the bad plants that triggered this. Personally, I don’t like the giving up feel of not having special garden things going on in winter (which is what I think the word gestures to, without claiming loveliness).

But I do dislike ubiguitous belts of bright cornus. I used to love them. Sorry to say it might be a bit about fashion, which is all about the fresh eye. That’s hard to believe, and I feel sure bright mixed conifers will not return in my lifetime, or heathers. But I adore the small-leaved shiny evergreen, that Mediterranean look. Lurid colour does not seem good to me. But the shy cyclamen coum, the single pale camellia. come on.

Just been reading Frank Kingdon Ward – The Romance of Gardening 1935. “Think of how colourless this foggy little island must have been, throughout five months of the year! …..The trees stood naked, shivering in the blast, the hedges were naked, the fields bare and cold, the whole landscape toneless”. He goes on to praise all the wonderful imports from all over the world.

Your subtle shafts of winter sunlight are all the more adored for being quite rare of course. Love your woodlands though, where the bright green moss and ivy of a relatively warm winter (It’s not that colour in Piemonte) is thrilling. And dare I say it, interesting.

As for snow, give me two days, I’ve had it. All those subtle light effects, enjoyed them, yes thank you, now what? And I do believe we are of an age…………

AnneWareham February 5, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Hi Jane
It might be fashion, and we probably are of an age, but I don’t remember ever liking island beds, dwarf conifers or heathers. Though, as with anything, I think I may have wondered whether there could be a good use for heathers, and that might be in the far north of the uk perhaps? It is about use and design after all. There may be a fantastic use for anything if we can find the imagination. Pampas grass is given a bad press but I think it could look amazing massed or as a long dramatic boundary….

I know what you mean about special things in winter – but I prefer them indoors, where they are really visible. And our hedges are a winter special of their own kind. (and I think there is one of your shy cyclamen in my pictures..)

The rarity of sunlight must depend on where you are – I wonder if someone will tell us of a really benighted place where garish is necessary to prevent suicide? I’m looking out at drizzle right now – but also lots of different greens, browns, beiges and greys. Maybe I should add that garden structures and hedges help bring all that to life?

I’m interested to read your Frank Kingdon Ward quote. He probably was that blind (or trapped in fashion..)depressed or else desperate to meet his word count?

Jacquetta Menzies February 6, 2015 at 8:39 am

Anne, I think interest is the right word to details. For instance, when your eye is caught by a dead flowerhead (love them, maybe it’s age) you really look with interest, at the way it is put together, how it holds itself on the stem, cobwebs, intricacies of frost. For the whole garden, it’s the structure that grabs me. Yes, that is how it should be, that’s satisfying, or – that’s interesting, why did they do that? (or of course internal shrieking Nooo that’s awful) I really enjoy garden visiting during the winter, you can see what’s going on without all the flummery.

AnneWareham February 6, 2015 at 9:35 am

Ah – the details,yes, they may be interesting, as you describe so eloquently, Jacquetta. But that, sadly, is not actually how that word gets used, is it?!! And a good garden needs a good structure which is always a pleasure when revealed by winter. I confess that despite fashion I cut most of our perennials down in the autumn and love the result.

Sarah Shoesmith February 6, 2015 at 10:02 am

Year-round interest is a phrase which has always niggled me; it usually refers to something evergreen that does very little other than stay green. I disagree with you about masses of colourful twigs. I might not go out of my way to look at them, but happening upon a bit of bright bark in winter does warm the cockles.

Fab photos by the way.

AnneWareham February 6, 2015 at 10:28 am

Happening upon sounds mercifully better than in your face…. Thanks for kind words re photos. Means a lot when I live with a professional photographer who goes ‘delete, delete, delete’ when he looks through my photographs.

Helen February 6, 2015 at 10:26 am

Hi Anne
I totally agree I think ‘winter interest’ is a term the media and NT have adopted and it seems to be more prevalent in recent years than I remember before. I expect it has come about as a way to encourage out of season garden visitors and the media have latched on to it as something new to right about at this time of year.

Personally I enjoy the quiet of winter. I don’t feel that my garden has to have winter interest as there is plenty of interest anyway in the bare trees when the sun shines or the way plants respond to the frost etc. And then there are the bulbs and of course the winter flowering shrubs which have started to interest me although Im not sure that they have enought interest year round to win a place in my tiny garden.

AnneWareham February 6, 2015 at 10:33 am

Sarcococcas are the ones for a small garden as I’m sure you know. The rest really don’t earn their space when space is limited. Your analysis on how the term arose is very interesting. (o!)

ava February 6, 2015 at 3:03 pm

If one more article mentions how wonderful the winter garden looks with hoar frost on it I shall scream. We’ve had one good one so far this year and we weren’t even at home for it. I’m not a particular devotee of heathers but mine have done very well this year – not with cute conifers.

AnneWareham February 6, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Quite right. I usually sleep through most of it!

Katherine Crouch February 6, 2015 at 7:15 pm

I found myself nodding in agreement at the comments about the underrated subtleties of the winter landscape and garden. Then I bundled up in four layers and went out to do some pruning with a client and we lasted only two hours before we were cold and miserable. I wished I was back on Madeira, where I was staying 10 days ago in a villa surrounded by banana plantations and bougainvillea. I have seen over 50 winters here. I liked winter there a lot.

AnneWareham February 6, 2015 at 8:22 pm

Horses for courses…

Annone Butler February 6, 2015 at 9:34 pm

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve tried to avoid the plants one is supposed to plant for “winter interest”. Although I do love my Mahonia. But the chief pleasure for me is bare branches against the sky particularly when windy and the moon through the branches on a frosty night. As in the comment above, I think winter interest is everywhere and all the better for not being clamouring and “in your face”. Quiet pleasures….

AnneWareham February 6, 2015 at 11:34 pm

Liked both comments, Annone – but guessed you might just like one up? Love your image of winter branches.And quiet pleasures. Xx

Marianne Majerus February 11, 2015 at 12:05 am

What do you watch on your woodland tv? surely not programmes about gardens with winter interest?

AnneWareham February 11, 2015 at 10:16 am

Never! Only ones about brilliant photographers.Xxx

AnneWareham February 5, 2015 at 11:46 am

Xxxx