A Walk in the Winter Garden; The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

By Andy McIndoe

I am so lucky that I have one of the finest winter gardens in the British Isles right on my doorstep. The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens is famous throughout the world for its phenomenal collection of woody plants, probably the biggest in Europe, and maybe the biggest in the world. Started as the private collection of the late Sir Harold Hillier it is now in the care of Hampshire County Council, responsible for its extension and development since the late 1970s.

Harold Hiller

Now, I could talk to you about the National Collections, or the Champion Trees or the conservation aspects of The Gardens, but I’ll save that for another time. Winter is my favourite time in The Gardens, so it took little self persuasion to entice me out of the office on a mild, grey afternoon, to go and see what was growing, glowing, blooming and filling the air with winter fragrance.

I must say the mild weather has moved plants apace, and I was staggered by the amount of plants in flower, some as much as four weeks earlier than normal!

I started out in the Winter Garden. An area of the garden developed in 1996, the event commemorated by the planting of an Acer griseum, the paper bark maple, by well-known plantsman and ex curator of The Gardens, Roy Lancaster.

The plaque

Across the Winter Garden

The Winter Garden, located near to the entrance to the gardens, concentrated plants that excelled during the winter months into a smaller area of the 160 acres. It showcases how winter foliage, stems, shapes, textures and flowers can make this one of the most interesting seasons. It was a different approach to how much of the original Hillier Arboretum, as it was known, was planted. Sir Harold reputedly loaded up a tractor and trailer with his treasures and drove around the site, originally only occupied by a few mature oak and beech trees. He planted a shrub or tree where he thought it would excel and grow best. He was more interested in the achievement and potential of the individual than how plants worked together, or the convenience of the visitor.

Rubus 'Golden Vale' and Ophiopogon

The Winter Garden showed a different approach to planting. From the outset it demonstrated the impact of bark and stems, particularly those of birches and dogwoods. When I strolled around the star of the show was Cornus sanguinea, both ‘Midwinter Fire’ and ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’. Interestingly these were also the two outstanding varieties when I visited Savill. The first arresting combination is ‘Midwinter fire’ with the glowing old gold foliage of Pinus mugo ‘Wintergold’, rising out of dark green Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’ and surrounded by the vertical parchment wands of Miscanthus sinensis.

In the distance a mass of ‘Midwinter Fire’ smoulders behind a group of neatly trimmed box balls. I must say I wouldn’t have thought of this combination, but it’s certainly stunningly effective!

Cornus 'Midwinter Fire' and Pinus 'Wintergold'

At the entrance to the garden, the prow of the central bed is occupied by the arresting combination of Rubus cockburnianus ‘Golden Vale’ and Ophiopogon planiscarpus ‘Nigrescens’. In summer the acidic golden foliage of the rubus is a stark contrast to the shining black, grass-like leaves of the ophiopogon. In winter the leaves of the rubus fall away to reveal red stems covered with a chalk-white coating which becomes whiter and chalkier as winter progresses. The black and white combination is contemporary and sculptural.

Cornus alba 'Sibirica' and phyllostachys

I found similar white rubus stems growing alongside the flame coloured stems of cornus elsewhere – wild! One of my favourite planting partnerships, visible from the centre of the garden, are the cardinal red stems of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ against the golden rods of the clump forming bamboo, phyllostachys.

The Winter Garden is an assault on the senses. The amount of colour is hard to absorb, not only from the stems but also from the glowing blooms of witch hazels, hamamelis. Space does not allow me to do them justice here and I’ll blog about them very soon. I think these winter beauties deserve their own space. I particularly love any of those with glowing orange and amber flowers, and I am amazed how those delicate ribbon-like petals radiate such intense colour. Then of course there is the fragrance, every one unique, sweet, spicy, exotic and totally intoxicating. What’s my favourite? - One of them is the alluring Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aphrodite’. She has a horizontal habit, with spreading branches, carrying deep copper-orange flowers with twisted petals. Her fragrance in totally delicious!

Hamamelis 'Glowing Embers'

Hamamelis 'Aphrodite'Chimonanthus praecox

Moving on from the winter garden to the paddock alongside the new Centenary Border (I’ll tell you about that another time) there are many more, even more mature witch hazels to be discovered. Here too I found the large wintersweet, Chimonanthis praecox was in full flower. This has the most curious translucent, almost bug-like blooms; interesting but unprepossessing. However the scent is amazing. One sniff and it’s hard to tear yourself away. It’s addictive, you just want more! I have one in the garden but it’s never flowered. This plant needs enough direct sun to ripen the wood before it will bloom.

There’s lots more I could tell you about. The camellias are already blooming on spring walk, the silky magnolia buds are swelling, the sarcococcas will fill the garden with their sweet scent any minute. And then of course there are the daphnes; but enough is enough for one day. We have weeks more to enjoy the winter garden so watch this space.

If you can pay a visit the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens are between Romsey and Winchester in Hampshire UK. They are open daily and I can assure you that your visit will be memorable! Visit: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/hilliergardens.htm for more information.

Andy McIndoe

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