Frost, some sunshine, a decent coat and scarf — that’s all you need to visit a garden in winter, unless maybe you add a willingness to step out a bit between glasshouses when it’s bitter.
I used to love marching out into these glittering gardens during the winter as the children ran around in figures of eight, and hopefully so will you.
Pensthorpe Natural Park, Norfolk
The Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf’s romantic, naturalistic planting of massed perennials looks nowhere more at home than the Pensthorpe bird reserve, where it rolls down the long banks of a lake. It’s the kind of work that’s intended to stand through the winter, its towering seedheads and grasses rimed with frost. The skeleton planting has a romance about it: a sad, beautiful and delicious reminder of a summer passed. And yet it isn’t really sad; it’s a very vigorous bit of planting and a great lesson in winter form. Water birds of all sizes will keep the children entertained.
Open daily 10am-5pm (10am-4pm during January), closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day; adults £11.25, children £9.75, under-3s free; pensthorpe.com
Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge
Thirty years ago Britain didn’t really do winter gardens. Winter plants, yes, but not winter gardens, unless it was clipped Victorian hollies or the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. Then Anglesey Abbey came along, the first of the modern, dedicated winter gardens. Its Winter Garden is not a scatter planting across the whole place, but a new piece of garden made specifically for winter display. A simple, wide path wriggles along between promontories of planting until it forks at a breathtakingly stark woodland of nothing but white birches. Along this path you will have seen just about every winter-flowering shrub worth its salt, rising from bold blocks of bulbs and perennials. The bark and perfume are wonderful.
Open daily 10.30am-4.30pm, closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day; adults £7.10, children £3.75; nationaltrust.org.uk
Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire
You might call the Hillier winter garden the son of Anglesey Abbey, except that whereas Anglesey is made in flat Cambridgeshire, Hillier’s, hunkered in Hampshire, gently rolls. It’s big on grasses which, so long as they are not blown to bits, really come into their own under winter frosts and snow. Quite apart from the winter garden, Hillier has one of the great collections of trees and shrubs, with good things to see at any time of year. There’s a brilliant nursery attached, echoing the garden’s treasures.
Open daily 10am–5pm, closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day; adults £8.60, under-17s free; hants.gov.uk
The view at Stourhead over the palladian bridge to the domed pantheon across the lake must be one of the most reproduced images in the world, from biscuit tin lids upwards. There is no telling what it’s done for Britain’s tourist income. This early landscape garden was made by banker Henry Hoare in the 18th century around an artificial lake (Hoare’s is still there in Fleet Street). His landscape of temples and varied greens was developed by subsequent generations into a colourful plantsman’s garden, big on conifers and rhododendrons. It’s beautiful now, though at any time of year Stourhead is a compelling place. I was there a month ago in late afternoon, and walked around the lake seeing hardly a soul; it was probably busier in the 18th century.
Open daily 9am-5pm, closed Christmas Day; adults £8.30, children £4.50; nationaltrust.org.uk
There is so much to see and do at Kew: the vast, blancmange-shaped Palm House sitting by its lake like Queen Victoria in the bath, the Winter Garden, the Temperate House, the Alpine House, huge tropical water lilies with leaves yards across, the treetop walkway marching along on giant stilts, the Holly Walk and, at this time of year, plenty of colourful winter bedding. Given its size, allow yourself lots of time and budget for a coffee stop — it’s also worth visiting the website first to look at a map.
Open daily 10am-4.15pm, closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; adults £9, children £3.50, under-3s free; kew.org
Trentham Estate, Staffordshire
If frost on grassy seedheads is what you crave, then to Trentham you must go. There’s a vast 18th-century lake and a huge 19th-century parterre, but both are thoroughly upstaged by modern planting. The parterre planting was brilliantly designed by Chelsea darling, Tom Stuart-Smith, and combines subtlety of colour with bold structure. Alongside this is a new garden by Piet Oudolf, a mass of curving beds and waving grasses that are as strong on substance in winter as they are in summer. You should see all this new work while it’s still fresh and young.
Open daily 10am-4pm, closed Christmas Day; adults £7.75, children £5.75, under-5s free, trentham.co.uk
Bedgebury Pinetum, Kent
Don’t be put off by the Christmas trees on sale here. Bedgebury is a fantastic arboretum and one of the best collections of conifers anywhere. Pines, firs, spruce, larch, cedars, cypresses — monsters, many of them — and ideally you should take your children to see them roofed with snow, so that they do not grow up to be sniffy about these majestic plants and think conifers suburban. They’re a big part of the world’s woods.
Open daily 8am-4pm, closed Christmas Day; £10 per car; bedgeburypinetum.org.uk
National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire
For many of us, the most remarkable thing about a Mediterranean climate (and there are four major regions of the Earth that have it) is that most of the growing and flowering goes on in winter and early spring, way ahead of our dank islands’ earliest efforts. And this is the climate and range of plants on show in Norman Foster’s fabulous glasshouse, its dome rising magnificently from the green hills. It’s wonderful. There’s a tropical house, too, if you want to see a bit of steamy jungle.
Open daily 10am-4.30pm, closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; adults £9.75, children £4.95, under-5s free; gardenofwales.org.uk
Studley Royal, Ripon
In ye olden days before the National Trust had Studley Royal, we once went for a dawn picnic breakfast on the mown banks of the crescent pool — and we have never forgotten it. Studley is an 18th-century, semi-formal watery landscape with lots of shadows and reflections, culminating in those picturesque ruins par excellence, Fountains Abbey. Woodland paths connect the various viewpoints, as do acres of romping space for children.
Open daily 10am-5pm, closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; adults £11, children £5.50; nationaltrust.org.uk
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire
English Heritage has been putting Wrest Park to rights for a few years now and it is again starting to be one of Britain’s loveliest, most serene formal landscape gardens. Thomas Archer’s domed and pillared pavilion at the end of a long canal is one of the great moments in English gardening, and so satisfying that even Capability Brown left it alone and confined his additions to a meandering, encircling river. There’s a bit of geometric stuff in front of the house, and roses, but it’s the landscape that counts. The work goes on with the help of an energetic band of log-hauling volunteers.
Open Saturdays and Sundays 10am-4pm, closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day; adults £9.30, children £5.60, under-5s free; english-heritage.org.uk
Q I would like a variegated holly (with berries) for flower arranging. Can you recommend any? T Young
A A prolific, and easily available, holly is ‘Madame Briot’, which has spiny leaves with yellow margins. If you prefer silver variegation, try ‘Argentea Marginata’, which has silver margins and is less spiny.
You will have to protect it with chicken wire initially because, not surprisingly, rabbits like smooth hollies. In fact, really hungry rabbits will have a go at ‘Madame Briot’, so if you have rabbits, protect your investment.
Send your questions to [email protected]
Try root cuttings now — phlox, cranesbill, verbascum . . . Dig one up, cut away 7-8cm of fat root, and set these the right way up around the sides of a pot of compost, the tops 2cm below the surface. Keep them cool and moist. They will shoot next March.
If you dig up dahlia tubers to store indoors over winter, there is always the likelihood that some will rot and ruin the rest of the clump. Look through your tubers now, and cut away any squishy ones. Store the healthy ones in a cool, dark, dry place.