Keen gardeners usually have dozens of books. Yet, they frequently search the internet for inspiration, to answer questions on specific tasks or plants, or where to site elements when planning. When I was sent Naomi Slade’s RHS The Winter Garden to review, I was not entirely sure what to expect, but after only a few pages I knew this is an impressive book, devoted solely to winter gardens.
The months from November until early February are often a time of year when people turn their backs on their gardens or outdoor space. But, thinking the weather is cold, the days are short and there cannot be much to do outdoors can mean losing a quarter of a year’s gardening and planning.
Naomi Slade is a journalist, garden designer and consultant. Winner of the Garden Media Guild’s Practical Journalist of the Year Award in 2022, she has numerous awards for show gardens, including Gold and Best in Show at The National Gardening Show, and three RHS Silver Gilt medals at RHS Chelsea. Her feature garden created for the RHS Early Spring Show in 2018 was based on the Winter Walk at RHS Wisley and received much appreciation. Many of her award-winning gardens have an environmental focus.
Although this book is clearly written by a garden designer with a genuine love of gardening, it has been put together in such a way that it will appeal to all, with key information enabling you to understand the essentials when creating a garden for winter enjoyment. Naomi then goes on to explain that as the beauty of winter takes over; frosty, frozen flower heads, the grass seed heads and the bare branches of the trees and shrubs revealing their structure and shape – this indeed is a season to be outdoors enjoying what nature has to offer. In some gardens which have sculptures or containers, new forms take centre stage. The starkness of winter can reveal the true bones of a garden, both with regard to hard landscaping and planting.
As you would expect there is information on plants including suggestions for plants with winter scent, structural plants, those with colourful winter stems and how to choose plants which will offer you more than one season of interest. Naomi also advises on how to add plants and structures to attract wildlife and birds into your garden throughout the winter and not just in the summer months.
When it comes to selecting bulbs for interest from late winter to late spring, there is a bundle of practical information. Naomi gives tips on how to plant up containers for winter interest and what to do in the kitchen garden and winter orchard. As the pace of gardening slows down during the colder months, there is opportunity to catch up on tasks that need doing before a new year of gardening gets underway. It is also a season when you can spend a few hours working outdoors, getting to know more about your garden: you will see how parts of the garden which are in heavy shade when the leaves are in full growth can actually benefit from light and the watery sun during the winter months. All essential knowledge when it comes to creating further elements of all year-round interest.
I was eager to speak with Naomi and find out more.
Credit Zac Wlaznik
What prompted you to write a book specifically about winter?
I love all seasons and times of the year in their different ways, but while there are hundreds of good gardens in June, this is not so much the case with the winter months. To a certain degree it is about conveying the joy I feel about a season that is often neglected and unappreciated. I have been thinking about this book for a long time and having written The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops, it seemed a logical next step. The idea is to celebrate the winter garden in every way possible, but also provide lots of ideas and ways in which people can enjoy this time of year and extend the period in which the garden is pleasant and useable.
What are your favourite plants for shape and form in winter?
My favourite winter plants are quite a varied bunch. I love looking at structure, so any tree that has a sculptural quality is a winner, and I particularly like a magnolia or an old espalier apple, together with anything that becomes attractively gnarly with age, such as hawthorn or sweet chestnut. But it’s not all about shape and form, I’m also keen on winter fragrance, so Sarcococca and Chimonanthus praecox are both lovely, especially when light levels are low, and you rely more on the other senses. I like something that has impact and intensity, too, so a mass of coloured stems, the mahogany gloss of cherry bark or a big swathe of crocuses, backlit by the sun, is utterly thrilling.
Does your own garden reflect the book?
My own garden is a very hardworking space. For my work it has to have a lot going on and something looking good at all times, but it is also my lab, in which I experiment with different plants and technique.
I always say that it is best to design a garden with winter in mind first. All the blingy flowers and summer interest can be added later, but you’ll notice a lack of structure and winter interest very quickly if it is missing. In that sense, my garden is very much based on winter interest, and it is something that I focus on continually, with a view to strengthening and improving it with each year that passes.
Gardeners get inspiration from other gardens, both locally and further afield. So which winter gardens would you recommend visiting?
Winter gardens often use a similar palette of plants and while it is hard to fault white birch and bright red Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ it is nice to see something different when visiting a garden. For me, Welford Park in Berkshire with its magnificent snowdrop wood really has the wow factor, while the Winter Walk at RHS Wisley is really well thought out, using reflections in the lake and the height of surrounding trees to great effect, as well as exploring colour and scent. Another really good winter garden is at Bodnant in North Wales. This is a great overall garden with lots to offer in its mature tree and shrub collection, but there is an inventiveness about the planting ideas in the winter garden there, which as a gardener looking for fresh ideas is really useful.
RHS The Winter Garden is published by DK, RRP £25