Autumn tones at RHS Bridgewater

RHS Garden Bridgewater is largely designed on a variation of the prairie style, made popular by exponents such as Piet Odoulf. That means most of the interest at this time of year comes from flowing grasses, and architectural seed heads.

Flower plumes of a Miscanthus (unlabelled, but possibly M. sinensis ‘Morning Light’)
Dried heads of Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), an ornamental plant which is closely related to globe artichoke.

Bridgewater was created just a few years ago, and only opened to the public last year, but even bearing that in mind, to me it lacks colour in the form of autumn leaves. There are rumours that an arboretum is planned, which will address this in time. In the meantime, there are at least some shrubs and trees that will give autumn colour. These topiary beech columns in the paradise garden, for instance…

The leaves of these beech (Fagus sylvatica) columns are just beginning to turn, and will look great against the silver of the Miscanthus in the foreground. A Japanese maple in the bottom left of the picture is also providing autumn colour.

The low angle of the sun at this time of year creates some interesting light effects; particularly when there’s dark cloud in the background…

The narrow, silver-backed leaves of these pollarded willows give a Mediterranean (possibly even Australian) look. They haven’t started to turn yet, but when they do, and then drop, the orange-red stems will be a decorative feature until the plants are cut back to the main trunk early next spring…

Coral bark willow (Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’)
Another perennial that has died gracefully, leaving attractive seeds and flower heads on tall stems. I believe this may be a Eutrochium (possibly E. maculatum ‘Reisenschirm’).

There was plenty of attractive fruit, from crab apples, to rose hips, as well as all sorts of berries…

The shiny, black berries of Phytolacca americana (American pokeweed), which also has red and pink stems.

And in one corner of the Paradise garden, a Mahonia was coming into flower…

Mahonia has evergreen, spiky leaves, and gives a splash of bright colour (as well as a delicate scent) in winter.

It’s easy to think there’s no point in visiting gardens at this time of year, because the show is over. But while there may not be the sheer joy, exuberance, colour and growth of summer, a well-planned garden will still have plenty of beauty and interest. RHS Bridgewater has achieved this, and it’s something we can all bring into our own gardens.

Most of us can find room for at least one winter flowering shrub; ideally one that provides interest at other times of the year – witch hazel (Hamamelis), for instance, has good autumn colour, and Mahonia keeps its spiky, structural leaves all year round. A clump of grasses such as Miscanthus or Calamagrostis (choose your favourite varieties) will have a presence in the border and look good all year round.

Many trees and shrubs have spectacular autumn colour, and bear attractive fruits that will persist well into the winter. There is a good choice of trees with attractive bark; many of which are suitable for a small garden. Try paper bark maple (Acer griseum), snake bark maple (Acer davidii), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), one of the Himalayan birches (such as Betula utilis ‘Moonbeam’), or Prunus serrula – an ornamental cherry with shiny, mahogany bark.

Hellebores and cyclamens will provide flowers at ground level in the winter, taking you through to the early bulbs, such as snowdrops, narcissus and crocus.

All told, there’s no excuse for a garden that is dull in autumn and winter.

The walled vegetable garden at RHS Bridgewater, watched over by the head gardener’s cottage.

Text & images © Strelitzia Garden Design 2022

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; you might be pleasantly surprised.

Flowers in Winter
With careful planning you can 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 cherry tree, Prunus x subhirtella, will provide beautiful blossom during mild spells throughout the winter. And while we’re on the subject of trees…

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

Decorative bark of Prunus serrula, Betula utilis ‘Grayswood Ghost’ & Acer griseum

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 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 shapes at Erddig gardens in 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. And if you’re not able to plant just yet, 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 you can’t still enjoy your garden. 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