Winter Gardens: In the past most large gardens were not open to the public during the winter. I suppose it was thought that gardens were only of interest in direct proportion to the quantity of flowers on show. However the low light of the short days and a touch of frost can show a formal garden at its absolute best. The structure is laid bare, the eye is not distracted by the decorative details. Crisply cut topiary and hedges contrast with pale fluffy seedheads become the main event The National Trust opens many of its largest properties all year round, providing for those who are looking for something to do during the winter holidays.
Here in the North West of England and North Wales the following gardens are open most days except for Christmas Day: Dunham Massey in Cheshire, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal inYorkshire, Sizergh in Cumbria, Bodnant in North Wales, Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire and Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire (this last is not National Trust).
Pruning is my favourite job for a sunny cold day. Doing this during the winter will stimulate strong new growth next year. Contrary to expectations, winter pruning does not reduce the size of a plant, quite the reverse. On the list is my Madeleine Sylvaner grape vine which has cropped well this summer. It is essential to get this done before January when the sap starts to rise as a vine can ‘bleed’ when cut. The aim, once you have a framework, is to cut back the side growths to two buds. Quinces, apples and pears are also candidates for reshaping. Thin out branches which are crossing in order to retain the open cup form of structure, this will let light and air into the centre of the tree. Take out any broken or rubbing branches right back to the main trunk. Leave the wound clean and flat, without snags and it will heal well, it is not necessary to paint it. NB don’t prune cherries or plums (prunus varieties), leave this until they are in growth.
Minor snips: Older roses can be renovated by removing a third of oldest growth. This will stimulate new flowering shoots for next year. Blackcurrants will benefit from the removal of one or two of the oldest (most branched) growth.
Take it slow: I have found that if, instead of amassing a bonfire’s worth of long prunings, cutting them up for firewood as you go slows the whole process down. Which is a good thing. It means you walk away from the tree to stack your sticks. When you return your eye appraises the structure afresh. As with so many things knowing when to stop is the trick.