Winter Inspiration: A Visit to Dunham Massey

In an effort to get out of the house on a grey day in the middle of January we decided to make a visit to Dunham Massey.  January is not normally considered the best time of year for garden visits, but a focus on winter interest at this garden provides great inspiration.  

Dunham Massey

Dunham Massey is a National Trust property situated in Cheshire, in the UK.  It is set within in large deer park and features a manor hall with more formal surrounding gardens which was formerly occupied by the Earls of Warrington and then Stamford.  Although this is about as far from modern urban gardening as one can get, Dunham Massey has what is claimed to be the UK’s largest ‘winter garden’ which provides a great source of inspiration for incorporating year round interest in gardens of any scale.  The following are some of the features used which might be replicated.

Bark

One of the first areas that you come to in the winter garden is ‘The Birch Triangle’, a copse of Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) trees which have vivid white bark and look quite ghostly in the wan light of January.  These are underplanted with Snowdrops, though at the time of visiting barely a fortnight into the new year there were only a handful of these in flower.  In a couple of weeks I imagine these two features in combination will be quite stunning.

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The Birch Triangle

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Further into the garden there are other examples of beautifully coloured bark which really comes into its own when colour from flowers and foliage is extremely limited.  For example, the copper coloured bark of the Tibetan Cherry (Prunus serrula) seen here.  There are varieties of Birch and Cherry, as well as Willow and Acer, which provide this interesting bark effect and are suitable for the smaller garden.

Stems

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Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’

Similarly, the colourful stems of Dogwoods provide fantastic impact in the winter.  These are shrubs which will grow virtually anywhere.  In order to get the best display of stem colour they need to be pruned back hard (coppiced) in late Winter/ early Spring every year.  The new growth then provides the fresh colours as seen here with Cornus alba ‘Siberean Pearls’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’.  Cultivars which have lime green stems such as Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’, or dark purple stems such as Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ are also available.  Smaller varieties may be grown in containers.

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Cornus alba ‘Siberean Pearls’

Seed Heads

The seed heads of some herbaceous perennials and shrubs can also be an interesting winter feature as well as providing seeds for birds and a location for insects to overwinter.  In this example at Dunham Massey it is the combination of the pompom heads of Hydrangea with the tall spikes of a giant Lily (Cardiocrinum giganteum).

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In a smaller setting plants such EchinaceaRudbekia, Poppies, AlliumSedumEchinops and Eryngium can all be used to provide winter interest and this is a good reason to delay cutting back summer growth until late Winter.

Grasses

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Along with leaving seed heads through the winter, the use of grasses has become in increasingly prevalent in contemporary planting which favours a more naturalistic style.  Grasses stand well through winter, and like the herbaceous perennials listed above, can be cut back in late winter so that they can be enjoyed in the pale winter light as with Molinia caerulea depicted here.  They also add movement on a breezy day which provides another element to the experience.

Bulbs

As part of the winter garden at Dunham Massey thousands of bulbs have been planted including Snowdrops and Dwarf Iris.  At the time of our visit only a few Snowdrops were in flower but numerous shoots could be seen and I imagine come February the area will be carpeted with their nodding white heads.  Bulbs are a great way to bring some colour into the garden early in the year and with a bit of planning can carry you through to Spring with Snowdrops, Dwarf Iris and Crocus giving way to Daffodils and then to Tulips.  They are also perfectly at home in containers and require very limited space.

Flowers

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Camellia

There was little in the way of flowers visible so early in the year apart from one exquisite bloom on a CamelliaCamellia produce beautiful flowers surprisingly early in the year (though this single flower was quite an unusual sight so early on) and as a woodland plant are happy in the acidic conditions of compost in a container so are a great option for the small garden.  Aside from the the Camellia, the emerging buds of Hellebores were visible and these are another excellent choice as the flowers can last for a significant time.

The unusual spindly flowers of Witch Hazel (Hamamelis sp.) were also in season and again these make an excellent choice of shrub for a small garden.  Some but not all are scented adding another dimension.

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Witch Hazel

Foliage

Evergreen shrubs such as Holly and Pieris were also dotted through the winter garden at Dunham Massey providing additional structure to the planting, though it appears I failed to take any photos of them!  Nonetheless choosing some plants for the garden based on interesting foliage with, for example, variegated or distinctively shaped leaves can add year round interest.

Scent

At this time of year the fragrance of Sarcococca, otherwise known as Christmas Box, is quite amazing wafting on the breeze as you pass by.  It is an otherwise unremarkable shrub with tiny white flowers which belie the fabulous scent it produces.  If space is at a premium it probably would not be one to choose given its lack of visual impact but in a larger space such as Dunham Massey is certainly a worthy inclusion providing another dimension to enjoy.  Alternatives might be Skimmia japonica or Mahonia x media varieties which also provide fragrance during the winter.

So all in all an uplifting experience on a cold and dreary day in January which provided much food for thought for my own, considerably less grand garden!

All photographs taken by Ann Cooke at Dunham Massey, 13th January 2018

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