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Joe Swift - Winter Isn't For Hibernating

The days are short and it’s cold outside, so the garden is hibernating, right? Wrong. Gardener’s World’s Joe Swift knows how important the colder months can be for the garden. Here he talks to us about the joys of wrapping up warm and getting stuck in during the winter season.

At this time of year….

people wrongly assume their gardens are hibernating until spring. There are designated winter gardens around the country that are worth a visit. They can really reinvigorate and energise you in winter when you need it the most. There are some fantastic plants with wonderful winter scents, colourful stems, interesting barks, evergreen textures and when it comes to your garden you need think about what it’s going to look like for the six wintery months of the year.

Looking from the inside...

out to the garden it becomes more prominent, so you need to have structure. I think people have become a lot more relaxed about how gardens look in the winter. We can appreciate traceries of trees and grasses that have gone over and plants that have faded.

In the old days...

when a plant faded people would chop it to the ground. Now we tend to leave it because it’s great for wildlife. When it gets frosted - as it has done in the last few weeks - they can look amazing when backlit with a low winter sun. That sort of beauty in decay is all part of the winter garden.

You take that winter look…

that glaze of frost for granted. If there were no plants out in the garden, if you chopped everything down, it would look quite bleak.

Winter is a very busy…

time in the garden. It’s time for planting trees and shrubs. Getting compost and manure on the ground, digging areas over and generally doing the stuff you can’t do in the summer when everything is in flower and you can’t get between plants. It’s actually a very busy time in the garden.

I spend a lot of time…

in the garden at this time of year. Last week I was pruning everything back, cutting back my neighbour’s trees that are overhanging, mulching over borders, weeding, digging the earth over to get air back into the ground. Then I chuck a lot of compost over the top and the worms will take it down over the winter for you - it saves you having to dig it in. The week before that I was at my place in France, I was gardening for three days solidly. It’s a nice time of year to garden because you’re relaxed, you’re not trying to get everything ready for spring but you’re tidying up, and being creative in your mind.

When there’s less…

light at this time of year you have to get out in the garden to get some vitamin D. If I’ve been in my office all day and it hits four o’clock I feel terrible. As long as it’s dry and you wrap up then it’s lovely.

Now’s the time to…

make notes. Ideally you’ve taken photos over the summer to plan how you want the garden to look next year. As you go later into winter there’s even more opportunity because the garden is dormant. That’s the time to do a project; putting in a path, a pond, a raised bed or two - whatever it might be.

There are plants…

that specifically flower in the winter. Viburnums and sarcococcas that are wonderfully fragrant because they’re trying to attract the scarce wildlife that’s still around. If you plant something like that near your back door then come the winter months you’re going to get a lovely strong scent. Then there’s wonderful barks and textures like a pruna cerena, loads of trees and shrubs that you would choose for how they look in winter. It’s not that they don’t look great in the spring and summer but they have a wonderful autumn colour.

Things like stems…

and dogwoods as well as evergreen structure like hedging and ground covers. It all becomes part of the winter pallet. Whenever you choose a plant think about what it might look like all year. Plan your garden correctly and you can have something beautiful in every season.

If you have a larger garden...

you could have a designated winter border of three or four plants that really work together. I go to Anglesey Abbey every January. If you get there on a crisp winter’s day it’s a stunning walk and one of the most vibrant gardens you’ll ever see right in the middle of winter. It smells amazing, it’s like a Narnia land, it’s surreal and invigorating. They actually scrub down the silver birches to get them bleach white against black grass, it’s incredible. A really good winter garden will give you ideas for your own garden.

My arthritic knees…

are so much better. Between the Flexiseq and not playing football, they feel pretty great. I’m not in pain at all anymore. I can run for a bus without warming up. I’m still doing yoga which undoubtedly helps. I walk a lot and generally keep fit. The football was putting a lot of stress on the joints. All that lateral movement wasn’t doing me any favours, especially when I’m marking some 25-year-old player, I’m 51 now, they run rings around me.

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