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Down to Earth: Structure makes winter gardens sing

Give your garden structure in the form of hedging and it will look lovely year-round, even in the dead, dread days of January, writes Cambridge designer Robert Barker

Euonymus (53467652)
Euonymus (53467652)

It is no coincidence that New Year resolutions are made when the garden is at its bleakest. We are, after all, giving ourselves an easy ride. Things can only get better.

For some of us though, that optimistic and positive outlook is hard to muster, especially when the garden looks like an expanse of bare soil and sad lawn. Of course, the garden isn’t dead but sleeping, yet I can appreciate that for some it is hard to imagine it waking up at all when it looks so desolate.

Well, there are a few design tricks that you can start to plan for now that will create interest in your garden next winter even on the coldest and bleakest of days.

A key element to my designs is structural planting. Indeed, to avoid the winter bleakness, I design my gardens to be as structural as possible. This creates a backbone for the garden, providing wonderful interest that has a beauty of its own.

Lonicera nitida (53467653)
Lonicera nitida (53467653)

Structure certainly doesn’t have to involve expensive hard landscaping; within all my designs I use hedging. If time is on your side, then hedging can be purchased at a small size relatively cheaply. Taxus baccata, Lonicera nitida and Euonymus ‘Green Rocket’ (as an alternative to Buxus) are just a few suggestions of plants that can be incorporated, in the form of block hedging and topiary, into an existing border or used en masse as a large hedging structure.

Using structural planting is definitely not an original concept of mine; it has been used within borders for decades. But surprisingly it wasn’t popularised until the mid 20th Century, during the contemporary planting movement, when the likes of Mien Ruys and later Giles Clement and Piet Oudolf saw the beauty in both its form and the way it can frame a garden.

The essence of the contemporary planting movement was the use of hedging in a simple, architectural, sometimes oblique, structural way that grounds a design and can work as a backdrop for loose natural planting. It is this structure that is so important in the winter months.

Taxus baccata (53467654)
Taxus baccata (53467654)

A contemporary structural garden provides architectural interest, not just in winter but also throughout the year. For example, in the summer months when the garden is full of colour, the structural hedging still frames the garden and anchors the space.

A mixture of a few seasonal star plants, evergreen structure, patience - and this time next year, your garden will be looking lovely and making sure you start the year on the front foot.

See robertbarkerdesign.com for more.

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