Bodnant in winter

What was planned as an invigorating visit to Bodnant gardens in North Wales, to see glowing stems and frosted seed heads lit up by the low winter sun, turned out to be a rather grey, damp affair with icy rain. Never trust a weather forecast.

It started bright enough, but driving along the A55 – the coast road – we could see heavy cloud and obliterating showers banked up just out to sea. The cloud was beginning to move in as we parked, but the sun was still lighting up the snow-covered Snowdonia hills to the south.

A carpet of golden-yellow leaves beneath a Ginko biloba.

By the time we were through the turnstiles the rain was just starting. Luckily, Bodnant provide umbrellas – nice bright yellow ones that make it look as though the sun’s shining even when it isn’t. For a while, the rain was light, and intermittent, and the sun peeped out very briefly now and then.

Blue hydrangea blooms looking incongruous against the surface of a pond speckled with autumn leaves – I suspect these flowers came when the plant burst back into life after being cut back by the extraordinary heatwave.

Bodnant has a winter garden, full of plants that look good at this time of year. Evergreen Daphne bholua had some flowers, with more to come, though they were too frosted to release any of the scent for which this plant is famous. Colourful stems of Cornus (dogwood) ranged from pale green (C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’), through fiery orange-red C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ to dark red C. alba ‘Kesselringii’. There were ghostly white arcs of Rubus cockburnianus, plenty of berries and seed heads, and ethereal, structural remains of grasses from Molinia to Miscanthus to Calamagrostis. Beautifully textured and coloured trunks of deciduous trees included the deep red, burnished Prunus serrula, shining white Betula utilis ‘Jacquemontii’ (Himalayan birch), the coppery peeling bark of Acer griseum (paperbark maple), and, a Snakebark maple that was new to me; Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’, with orange-red trunk and branches.

Opposite the main restaurant, Prunus serrula rise from a thicket of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, the leaves of which are rather an insipid green during the growing season, but take on impressive autumn colours (and, as you can see, stay on the plants for a long time).

At Bodnant, there are plenty of evergreens to act as a backdrop to all those bright highlights. Having acid soil, the garden is well-furnished with rhododendrons and camellias, as well as more tender specimens such as Callistemon (bottlebrush) and arbutus unedos (strawberry tree). Pines, both small and large, work particularly well in the winter garden; providing a dense, finely textured background to stems, grasses, trunks and berries, and at Bodnant, they make good use of these.

A group of three Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’ give a splash of colour among evergreens and pale stems. The spidery flowers of the Hamamelis (witch hazel) on the left are getting ready to bloom, and should be out soon.

The sun did come out weakly now and then, as you can see from the pictures, but I didn’t take many photos – I didn’t want the camera to get too wet, and I was counting on the weather clearing later on. But by the time we’d had lunch in the cafe by the garden centre, the rain had set in and it was as dark as dusk, so I never got that low winter sunlight I’d been hoping for. Never mind; there’s always next year!

Text & photos © graham wright 2022

November Gardening Jobs

Plant bare root trees and shrubs
Deciduous trees, and some shrubs, can be bought ‘bare-root’ during the dormant season. This is typically a cheaper way to buy plants, because unlike potted plants, which need a lot of care and attention by the nursery (regular potting-on, watering, etc.) these will have been grown out in the field, and are dug up and dispatched direct to the customer. Ornamental trees, fruit trees, fruit bushes (including raspberries) and roses are all supplied bare-root over the winter.
When they arrive, you should try to plant them as soon as you can. Soak the roots for an hour or so, and then get them planted. Don’t forget to buy stakes to support any trees you’ve bought. Although if you have very small saplings, they are best planted without stakes).

A selection of roses, delivered bare-rooted in the winter, ready to be soaked in water, and then planted

Move plants
This is, technically speaking, bad practice. In an ideal world, we would all place plants in exactly the right position. In reality, it’s easy to get the spacings wrong, or to find that combinations of colours and textures are not working as you’d hoped. I’m ashamed to admit this happens to me more frequently than I’d like. Now is a great time to move plants around, and although it seems like sacrilege to dig up a plant only to move it a few feet, it’s amazing just how much you can get away with (though it’s best to avoid moving trees and shrubs that are too established). Any perennials you dig up to move may be able to be split, and used to fill gaps elsewhere.

Make leaf mould
Continue collecting fallen leaves from paths and lawns and adding them to the leaf mould bin (if you’ve made one) or put them in bags (hessian bags are best, but you can use plastic bags – old compost bags, or bin bags – with holes punched into the sides and bottom with a garden fork). Leaves can be left on beds to rot down naturally – just make sure any small plants are not swamped.

Check tree ties
If you haven’t done it already, check the ties on any trees that are staked. There are bound to be storms blowing through at this time of year, so it pays to check the stakes are still sound, and the ties are firm, but not too tight.

Weeding
A perennial task, but despite the cooler temperatures, weeds are taking advantage of the rain to sprout and grow fast. Hoeing is not so effective in damp conditions, so weeds will need to be pulled or dug out.

Move self-seeded plants
There are bound to be some hard frosts soon, but while the weather stays (relatively) mild, you can move self-seeded plants like foxgloves (Digitalis), love-in-a-mist (Nigella) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis) to where you want them.

Self-sown forget-me-nots

Clean the greenhouse
Haven’t you cleaned that greenhouse yet? You need to get it done in time to move in any tender plants before the weather gets too cold for them (okay, so I admit I may not get around to this job every year).

Store tender plants
As I’m writing this, we still haven’t had any significant frost, and the Dahlias, Cannas, Pelargoniums and the like are all still flowering. But the cold is coming soon. Dahlias are traditionally not brought into storage until the top growth has been blackened by frost. Pelargoniums should definitely be brought under glass before they are hit by frost. Traditionally, Dahlia tubers were stored in dry sand, or even ash from the fire. More recently, dry, spent compost is recommended – though there is the potential for introducing pests and diseases. The other day I saw some advice recommending using shredded paper. I’m going to try that this year, and put all those top secret documents to good use.

Plant some bulbs
It’s a good time to plant bulbs such as tulips and alliums, for next season, in pots and in the ground.

Tulipa ‘Ballerina’

Plant for winter interest
At this time of year the cold, the damp, the short days and the low light levels can get you down. To cheer yourself up, and if you have the room, why not stick two fingers up to the cost of living crisis and buy a plant that will give you some joy over the winter months? I’ve just bought a witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’), the branches of which are laden with buds ready to burst into lovely, fragrant, spidery orange flowers any time now.

Hamamelis x. intermedia ‘Jelena’

Planning for winter interest…

Winter tends to be thought of as a time when gardens go to sleep. Trees and shrubs lose their leaves, perennials die back to ground level, and bulbs are dormant below ground. Evergreens may keep their leaves all year round, but they don’t do anything interesting in the winter, do they? And as for flowers, you’re unlikely to see any until the snowdrops pop up in early spring. Well, actually…

Flowers in Winter
With careful planning, it’s possible to have plants in flower all the way through what we refer to as ‘the dormant season’. There are a range of shrubs that flower in winter, and surprisingly, many of them are deciduous. Flowers tend to be smaller and less showy than summer blooms, but they stand out more against bare branches. What’s more, winter flowers tend to be strongly scented. Witch hazel (Hamamelis), a graceful deciduous shrub, produces striking, spidery flowers in yellows, oranges or reds in January and February. Winter sweet (Chimonanthus) has fragrant yellow flowers from December to February. And winter honeysuckle (Lonicera) has highly scented white flowers from December to March.

Viburnum x bodnantense makes a large, bushy shrub with attractive mid-green leaves. It has clusters of fragrant pink flowers intermittently throughout the winter.

Winter flowering evergreen shrubs include Mahonia; the bright yellow flowers of which are followed by dark berries, daphne and sweet box. All are high scented.

The appeal of bark & stems
Trees with decorative bark make striking features in the winter, when their colours and textures are more visible.

Many varieties of Dogwoods (Cornus) have richly coloured stems in yellow, orange, red or black. In the summer, these are hidden, but when the leaves drop off, they shine out and make a striking feature in the garden. Many willows (Salix) also have brightly coloured stems (willows are known as large trees, but there are varieties that are much smaller). For both willows and dogwoods, cutting some, or all of the stems back to ground level in spring enhances the effect (it’s the new growth that carries the colour).

Colouful stems of dogwoods; Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, C. alba ‘Sibirica’, & C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’

And then there are trees and shrubs that produce attractive berries, many of which can last well into the winter.

Malus ‘Comtesse de Paris’ (Crab apple), Rosa rugosa, & Ilex auquifolium ‘Argentia Marginata’ (Holly)

In winter, the bare branches of trees and shrubs make for interesting structures in their own right, even without attractive flowers, berries or bark. Evergreens have a more solid presence, and those that have been shaped into topiary decorate the winter garden with their architectural shapes.

Topiary at the National Trust garden Erddig, North Wales

Autumn is the perfect time to plant new shrubs and trees, because the soil is moist, and still warm enough to allow roots to establish. What’s more, many are available ‘bare-rooted’ at a much lower price than potted specimens. Deciduous bare-rooted trees and shrubs can be planted any time throughout the autumn and winter.

At ground level, flowers are scarce in the winter, and those plants that do produce them, such as hellebores, reticulata irises and cyclamen, are valuable.

Winters in the UK are long, wet and cold, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy our gardens. And it won’t be long before bulbs come into flower, starting early on with snowdrops and crocus, then the various types of daffodil, and on to the tulips; when we’ll know that summer is almost here.

Text, title photo, and that of Erddig ©Strelitzia Garden Design. All other photos are from the on-line nursery Crocus