Designing a Winter Garden
Right, before you read on I'd like you to walk to a window and take a look at your garden. So, what's it look like? Colourful? Full of interest? My garden is neither of these things right now, and has big patches of bare earth, soggy perennials, the odd shrub and very little colour. In fact, it's dull and boring and I'd bet you're garden looks pretty similar (you have permission to feel smug if it doesn't).
"My garden last winter."
But what's the solution? What makes a garden look stonking through the winter months? Well, in the school of do as I say and not as I do, I'm going to tell you.
A gorgeous variegated pittosporum stands in the middle of my main border and goes totally unnoticed during the summer when it's surrounded by more floriferous things - it's a different story now of course and it's really earning its keep at the moment.
Of course what I need is more evergreens in different shapes, colours and sizes. Perhaps a nice dark-leafed phormium, a silver sencio or a glossy laurel would do the trick. Plants like this can form the backbone of a border, springing into the limelight as their showy summer cousins retreat.
Okay, I'm not suggesting you should plant a knot garden or create a giant dove out of yew, but topiary is incredibly valuable in a winter garden. Keep it simple with clipped shapes planted in pots on your patio or a low hedge to edge a border - this way you'll have permanent structure for frost to dust and snow to decorate.
I talk from experience with this one as I have two box balls in pots flanking either side of my main path and a group of three box balls planted in a group at the front of a border. You hardly notice they're there in the summer, but come winter they're the only things you really see. And crikey they look good.
The word 'structure' can apply to all sorts of things in a garden but on this occasion I'm talking about garden buildings, arches, arbours, obelisks, statues and the like. Yes gardening is all about nurturing plants, but it's these 'hard' elements that really give the winter garden clout.
You don't need them all, but take a look at your garden again (go on, up you get) and consider if simple statue would lead the eye and detract attention from the empty brown earth. Or maybe a bit of trellis screening would create sense of intrigue
I've got a small shed in my garden that's at the end of a zig-zag path - the shed's not in the slightest bit fancy, but its being there does make you want to walk to the end of the path without looking too closely at the mess you're passing.
Winter gardens can often seriously lack in colour (mine included) so hunt down plants that create a splash at this time of year. Look for things with colourful stems (cornus is a winner) or berries (holly or pyracantha are classics) or, if you're really lucky flowers (hellebores, aconites and snowdrops offer good value in the colour stakes).
Admittedly these plants won't transform your entire garden but they will create pockets of interest. Failing that, get out your paint brush (I'm totally serious) and inject a bit of colour that way - a jolly painted shed or a colourful fence makes all the difference in these dreary times.
Kevin Smith is a garden writer, blogger and former Commissioning Editor of BBC Gardeners' World Magazine.