Q&A with Debbie Roberts from Acres Wild

What are some of the highlights of the winter garden?

Frost can create a magical effect on shrubs, grasses and those sturdy perennials able to retain their structure.  Low winter sun beautifully highlights plants such as dogwoods which work best in a location that gets morning or evening sun, and ideally against a dark background such as an evergreen hedge.

What are your tips on creating structure in a winter garden?

Good bones are key and that means the right balance of paths, terraces, the size and shape of the lawn, trees, and evergreens.  Hedges like yew provide the perfect dark backdrop to set off the colourful winter stems of Cornus (red, orange or gold) and Rubus cockburnianus (white).   

Can you suggest any trees for winter interest?

Any deciduous tree will provide winter interest with the tracery of its branches silhouetted against the sky.  Trees with interesting bark like Prunus serrula and Acer griseum are particularly attractive and the winter flowers of Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ are a welcome sight.  Betula utilis  subsp. jacquemontii, the Himalayan birch, the ghostly white bark of which seems to reflect the starkness of the season, is the classic winter tree.  It looks much better planted in informal groupings or groves, as they would be found in nature.

What perennials do you recommend for winter structure?

Architectural plants like cardoons and Eupatorium sp. provide height and drama, whilst more subtle perennials like asters, sedums, echinacea, eryngium and rudbeckia are strong enough to stay upright.  The best winter perennial is Phlomis russeliana, providing felted evergreen leaves and sturdy globular seedheads, which contrasts beautifully with strong vertical grasses like Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’.  The browned seedheads of hydrangeas like H. Little Lime, also contribute immensely to the winter garden.

Are there any ornamental grasses you think look particularly good during the winter?

Miscanthus grasses like M. sinenesis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ are perfect companions for glossy evergreen shrubs like Choisya ternata and Viburnum tinus, contrasting in form but complimenting each other in scale.  Best of all are Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’, which work well with the ghostly stems of perovskia and seedheads of echinacea.  We also use lower grasses and sedges like Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hamelm’ or Carex ‘Ice Dance’ and winter flowering heathers.

What plant combinations do you particularly like?

In larger gardens, we might plant double or even triple staggered rows of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica ‘and C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ in front of a yew hedge with bold swathes of C. sanguinea’ Midwinter Fire’ in front to create a sizzling winter effect.  For the front of borders we use ground cover plants like Pachysandra terminals, Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ and Bergenia ‘Eroica’ or evergreen sedges like Carex morrowii with pale pink or white hellebores behind. Betula utilis subsp. jacquemontii might be interplanted with swathes of Dryopetris ethrysora for texture, with spring daffodils and Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ for height before the dogwoods take on their autumn hues.

Award-winning garden designers Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith established Acres Wild in West Sussex in 1988 and specialise in the design and master planning of larger country gardens throughout Sussex, Surrey, Kent and Hampshire, as well as further afield in the UK, the Channel Islands (Guernsey) and abroad.