Embrace decay, but avoid complete disarray

Embrace decay, but avoid complete disarray


Life & Style
A clipped hedge pulls Fiona's slightly untidy winter garden together.

A clipped hedge pulls Fiona's slightly untidy winter garden together.

Aa

While winter certainly has its own beauty in the four seasons garden, decay as such depends on damp, otherwise you have desiccation, which is a quite different animal.

Aa

Dusk in winter is a beautiful time in the garden.

The wind drops, the birds call out as they fly home to roost, the sun sinks below the hills and if I'm lucky there's the scent of tobacco flower or a honeysuckle hanging in the still air.

Thinking about Stephen Vella's garden that I wrote about recently (The Land, May 30) and his view that at least part of the appeal of the winter garden is beauty in decay, it crossed my mind that this idea has taken more thought on Stephen's part than he implies.

While winter certainly has its own beauty in the four seasons garden, decay as such depends on damp, otherwise you have desiccation, which is a quite different animal.

Without a period of damp weather, the leaves of orange, purple and red maples and liquidambars, green and gold oaks and scarlet ornamental grapes would simply be brown, dry and brittle and would quickly fall.

Similarly, herbaceous perennials like solomon's seal (Polygonatum), sedums, liatris (E. spicata) and eupatorium (E. purpureum) would lose their soft, transparent colours and would soon be banished to the compost heap.

The large leaves of cannas, furry grey lamb's ears (Stachys) and plume poppy (Macleaya) are particularly dismal when they droop and turn limp in drought.

Splitting grasses like Panicum 'Heavy Metal' or Stipa gigantea quickly becomes time consuming and boring. A friend recently had to deploy a bobcat to move an old Miscanthus. - Fiona Ogilvie

In a damp garden you know life is continuing underground, but in a dry, un-watered garden you sense only death.

Another problem is that it's too easy for a decaying garden simply to segue into a neglected garden, again not a good look.

Autumn leaves scattered across a mown lawn are fine. Dead leaves piling up on overgrown grass and cluttering up paths and paving are distinctly off-putting.

The key here is contrast. If some elements of the garden are being looked after, then it becomes obvious that the parts left to themselves are a deliberate element of the total picture.

You might, say, leave a flower border to decay over winter before whipper snipping it to the ground in August, but keep the hedge behind it clipped.

Ornamental grasses are an important element of many winter gardens, but again are only at their best during the off-season in at least moderately damp climates.

Be very aware of the size a large ornamental grass may reach. A few years ago, I planted some sarabande maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Sarabande'). It grew rapidly to more than two metres, three metres in flower, but a much bigger issue is the way it's spreading.

Splitting grasses like Panicum 'Heavy Metal' or Stipa gigantea quickly becomes time consuming and boring. A friend recently had to deploy a bobcat to move an old Miscanthus.

A smaller native grass would be a better option. Swamp foxtail (Pennisetum alopecuroides), basket grass (Lomandra longifolia) and steely blue common tussock grass (Poa labillardierei) are easy, pretty and best of all, knee high.

The main thing is to do what works best for you. And if it's not working, never be afraid to start again.

Aa

From the front page

Sponsored by