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Helen Elks-Smith: Winter garden design

Many aspects of a garden, along with the desire to spend time in it, become dormant during winter. Careful design considerations can transform this, turning uninspiring winter gardens into beautiful, thriving settings. Pro Landscaper speaks with Helen Elks-Smith to pick her brain about designing a garden that retains its beauty during the winter months.

Understanding Client Desires

“For certain clients who may spend winter abroad, or when we design their holiday home garden which is not used in winter, a focus on this time of year is not appropriate,” Helen begins.

“It is interesting when we speak to clients that themselves do not focus attention on the colder months.” Explaining further why some clients do not prioritise their gardens during winter, Helen says: “This is unsurprising as clients tend to describe what they want or like in terms of their own design experiences or understanding.

“As so many gardens and public plantings offer little at this time of the year, many clients are just not aware of the possibilities. The visual references are just not clear. So, from the outset it is important that seasonality is part of the dialogue with clients.”

Different Approaches

“There are different approaches to planting for display in winter. One of course is ornamental grasses with a winter outline. This could perhaps be enriched by perennials with interesting seed heads, all with a bit of staying power,” Helen says.

Warning that this approach may not be suitable for every client, Helen continues: “It is no good taking this approach if the client loves the atmosphere created by the summer form, but they’re keen to cut to the ground every last stem as soon as senescence sets in at the first sign of autumn. Understanding the client is key.”

Brown Gardening

“This concept of ‘brown gardening’ also requires an understanding of how plants change through the seasons. How the plants are cared for in one season, greatly impacts planting compositions in another.”

Advising on suitable planting to achieve an attractive winter effect, Helen suggests: “Phlomis russeliana has a wonderful silhouette in winter. Though, the gardener and client need to know to leave the spent flower spikes midsummer.

“Chris Marchant of Orchard Dene Nurseries suggests that in the autumn, the flower stalks of Veronicastrum can be stripped of foliage. This leaves the stalks as strong vertical accents over the winter. Both the Phlomis and Veronicastrum then provide structural elements to a winter scheme.

Handling Clients

“Such detail, as explained by Chris, must be communicated and understood by the designer, client and gardener. If that skill and knowledge is not there, then another approach may give better results. Understanding the gardener and skill levels is important to ensure that a design will be realised as the plants establish and grow. This communication is not a static, one-off event but generally involves an on-going dialogue between designer, client and gardener.”

“With all of this in place, a designer can play with the materials and planting to take advantage of the changing angle and quality of light that distinguish each season.”

 

About Helen Elks-Smith

Helen Elks-Smith is an award-winning garden designer and member of the SGD. Her practice, Helen Elks-Smith Garden Design has been decorated by The SGD and BALI Awards.

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