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Down to Earth: The joy of bringing outside in

Seeing red both indoors and out lifts festive spirits, writes Cambridge garden designer Robert Barker

The end of an extremely challenging year is upon us. I know using the words ‘extremely challenging’ can’t possibly do justice to how difficult some people’s experiences have been, but no matter what situation we find ourselves in, the sun is setting on 2020 and a new dawn is upon us.

Like most traditions this year, Christmas can’t possibly be the same as it was before. One tradition that can’t change, however, is the way in which we invite elements of the garden and nature into our homes: Christmas trees, holly wreaths, mistletoe - all are invited inside.

Personally I love this element of the festive season. All of a sudden the house smells of pine needles and rooms look more comforting with greenery adorning shelves, walls and mantelpieces.

The one plant that really stands out for me is the Poinsettia, which by many is considered the ‘Christmas Plant’ due to its wonderful red and green leaves. I’m sure I’m not alone in buying a few each year, earnestly believing that I’ll be able to keep them alive for the following year only to dump them onto the compost heap by the first week in February. The species is indigenous to Mexico so no wonder it struggles in the drafty December houses of the UK.

Bringing elements of the garden inside isn’t our only way to get a horticultural fix over the winter months however. There are few better places to visit this time of year than the wonderful winter garden at the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden. It was designed by Norman Villis and Peter Orriss in the 1970s and is one of the most famous examples of how a garden can make a powerful impression in winter.

A wave-like path meanders through borders that almost look like they are on fire with coloured stems of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and the ghostly looking Rubus cockburnianus. There are key architectural plants within the borders that are so important to any winter garden, from evergreen shrubs such as Mahonia to overarching specimen conifers and trees with interesting bark catching the light and brightening up dull corners.

The garden is also wonderfully scented. Plants such as Sarcococca confusa and Viburnum x bodnantense perfume the air as you walk through the garden. All these wonderful elements reminding us of the joys of horticulture, just at the time of year - and, as 2020 draws to a close, the time in our lives - when we need reminding the most.

See robertbarkerdesign.com for more.

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