Visiting a garden in winter shows a whole new perspective on a familiar landscape and highlights aspects of the garden, in particular the evergreen structure, which may have been missed when visiting amid the floral abundance of high summer.
I kept forgetting that Chartwell, home of Winston Churchill, near Westerham in Kent, had changed its opening hours so that the gardens are now open all year. Typically, I chose a freezing cold afternoon with snow on the ground to visit. The positive side was that I had the gardens virtually to myself; even the staff had the sense to find indoor tasks.
The name “Chartwell” comes from the well on the estate and ‘chart’ meaning ‘rough ground’ in Old English. The gardens are grade II listed, meaning they are of historical importance. This doesn’t mean they are locked into a time warp; the gardening team create and maintain interesting displays throughout the gardens. They have risen to the challenge of accommodating visitors all year round; visitors who, if a garden is open to the public during the winter, expect that there something worth seeing.
I was accompanied for some of the time by Franklyn, one of the resident cats; he posed beautifully in the rose garden, a fluffy blackness against the white snow and the formally pruned rose bushes. Churchill insisted that there was always a marmalade cat with white socks called Jock at Chartwell, but he was obviously inside in the warm when I visited (probably on his Facebook page – do you think he ‘likes’ ours?).
Naturally my main focus was the winter border as I had been promised some delights of scent and colour by one of the gardeners. On the way I took in the orchard with its winter pruned apple trees, including Malus domestica ‘Newton’s wonder’. This is not, as you might think, an offspring of the famous tree that dropped an apple on Isaac Newton’s head so he discovered the laws of gravity. That particular Northamptonshire tree was Malus ‘Flower of Kent’. ‘Newton’s wonder’ is a culinary apple, a nineteenth century cultivar like the popular ‘Bramley’, but sweeter in taste.
The Sarcoccca confusa or sweet box, sits lushly by the gate to the vegetable garden at the lower end of the winter border. Normally packing a wow of scent even in winter, it was struggling a little due to the extreme cold and lack of sun, but a closer sniff proved it was still in business. The sloping border offered colourful Cornus (dogwood) with lime green stems contrasting with the red brick wall. This shrub proves its worth time and again as winter interest and can easily be accommodated in smaller gardens and borders. Pruning the stems in March frees up space for summer herbaceous flowers to grow in front; with the advantage of colourful fresh young Cornus stems to delight the eye the following winter.
Closer to the ground I admired the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) braving the snow. I liked the pairing of these with Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens (black grass). Not all was monotone; the Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) has a yellow flower that perversely I find more attractive closed rather than open. The Corsican Hellebore (Hellleborus argutifolius) added some texture to the border, and complimented the green foliage of those bulbs that were poking through the snow. I do love Hellebores; I feel a trip to the national collections at Broadview Gardens and Hazles Cross Farm may be in order soon…
At the top of the sloping winter border I was rewarded with the gorgeously scented Daphne bholua. The scent admired, and having reached a high point of the garden I thought I might briefly sit and enjoy the views that tempted Churchill into buying this estate. On seeing the seat though, I changed my mind; stood a while admiring the landscape, then headed off for the warm, well pleased with my snowy garden visit.
Update September 2013:
Marie/ Plews Garden Design’s photograph of the snowdrops in the winter border has been chosen as the February photograph in the Chartwell National Trust 2014 calendar.
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