Photograph: Kathy deWitt/Alamy
I have spent a long time berating myself about my ugly winter garden. If only I was better, if only it were prettier; if only I were prettier… and so it goes on. I think that if only some of these things were true, then I’d go out into a winter wonderland rather than just picking my way through muddy debris and spent fireworks until spring.
However, I was out last week and drove past a roundabout stuffed full of those preposterously colourful primroses you get in the winter. Really, I thought, their shocking gaudiness should be confined to the summer months when they might be less jarring. I was having an internal monologue rant when I was struck by the realisation – I need and like a dull, ugly time in the garden. I want a break from all the bursting with colour lushness that you get during the warmer months. I don’t want to see those offensively pink pinks and overly saturated blues in this dark part of the year. I need a rest. I want crushed blacks and dead browns. I want to see straggly remains and mangled skeletons as the plants wither and die. Here is James Golden (of Federal Twist fame) being much more poetic and clever:-
“Perhaps there are ways to view the garden as a much broader aesthetic statement than usually considered … one that deals with subject matter that isn’t necessarily “pretty” in the conventional sense. One that evokes and looks seriously at decay and death … I merely suggest an extension of the simple recognition of the beauty of the winter landscape into a more aesthetically explicit exploration of the darker side of life, the garden as a work of art that is capable of encompassing the entire range of the human condition. Not just a pretty meadow, but also a gloomy forest as the sun sinks below the horizon–indeed, many other things.”
I have always loved garden designer Piet Oudolf‘s understanding of gardens as having four seasons. The spring and summer are, after all, only half the year and there is much to explore and understand in the darker autumn and winter gardens. What I object to is the idea of trying to make autumn and winter like spring and summer. There is the drive to add colours and fragrance so that, however scant, there is something “pretty” to engage with. Actually, a moment’s rest from it all is essential. It is only then, after months of quite unremitting bleakness and monochrome gloom that you can truly appreciate the miracle that is spring and the joy that is summer.
When I got home I ventured into my garden and there wasn’t a single thing that was flowering or looking nice. I was at last heartened by that. I thought, I have done a really good job of creating a garden that is having a bit of downtime.