January Resolutions- to enjoy impermanence

Andrew Staib
Andrew Staib

On a Saturday morning, when you look out of your window, does your garden invite you in or does it look wild, cold and without interest?

There is a trend to want our gardens to be like our new kitchens. Spotless, shining and minimal, with plastic decking and AstroTurf that will last not just for our lifetimes but for hundreds of thousands of years –  hygienic immortality.

But there are other ways to look at nature in January.

The frosts, snow and rains wreak havoc over the land and the perennials, with millions of years of experience, have scuttled their energy below ground to hibernate. The ghosts of our ancestors sow and repair and pray that they will survive.

The remaining stalks, seedheads and saggy stems are slowly becoming next year’s rich soil. In amongst this decaying fabric there are still many signs of life: bird prints, insect cocoons, spider webs lit up with dew and the profound smell of rotting leaves.

It is also possible to have a vibrant and colourful garden in this month, which will entice you outside.

Armed only with a camping chair, hot-water bottle, blanket and a flask we can soak up the end of beauty and the beauty in the middle of nature’s ruination.

A garden can be full of colourful berries and brightly stemmed shrubs, the bark of selected winter trees, interesting structures like internal hedges and topiary plus colourful evergreens peppered amongst winter branches.

A January garden can be a thing of great beauty, with both death and life intertwined.

As the cold and the lack of sunlight have denuded the garden and the rich juice of Summer has retreated into roots and trunks and bulbs, the bare bones of a garden can give a deep sense of artistry and peace. We accept that things die, the twilights of winter remind us that all things come to an end, and yet life is powerful and patient. Even in January, often the coldest month of the year, we can sniff the stirrings of new beginnings. And while we are busy vowing never to overeat or drink again, the lean times of Winter can offer us something essential – a monochrome impartial beauty where things are not set up to entertain us or sell us something.

A Good Structure

A garden no matter how small needs to have a well-proportioned and interesting structure from which Spring and Summer can burst out of. As a designer I know that if the structure I have created looks good in Winter nothing much can go wrong with the infilling of plants later on. That’s why garden designers put most of their energy into making sure the layout works first before anything else.

A good structure can be created by many elements. Internal hedges can paradoxically make the garden feel bigger by separating areas and making smaller ‘rooms’ in which a person needs to wander and explore from space to space.

Good hedging that looks good in winter are Beech, Yew, Holly and Portuguese Laurel (please avoid Cherry Laurel. There is enough of it already in the world plus the bright green, plastic-looking leaves can almost deny that Winter is here, which I think is a shame.)


Topiary doesn’t have to be just Box balls and squirrel shaped shrubs. You can ‘cloud’ prune all manner of hedges and shrubs into interesting pyramids, clouds, saucers, columns and blobs, which can create a strong presence in Winter, especially if you have a few of them well balanced in different areas.

Also you can choose plants that have a sculptural appearance. Imagine lots of the conifer Prunus mugo Carsten’s Wintergold placed throughout the beds.

Pots and Sculpture

Once the flower show is done, ornamental pots and sculpture come into their own in Winter and they are no longer having to compete with the effulgence of nature. If you place them in focal point locations they will lift your garden to a different level. If at all possible, go Big with them. Even in a small garden they will get lost and look twee if too small and cheap-looking.

Small evergreen plants

As well as the obvious Winter shrubs and trees that don’t lose their leaves think about combinations of a few plants dotted around together.

Some examples of perennials with striking Winter foliage are: Cotton Lavender, Stacys bizantia, Rosemary, Bergen delavayi with its fat purple leaves, Hebes, Liriop miscarry and Tiarella Spring Symphony.


Seedheads are very popular today. They are good for wildlife and look great in Winter sunsets or in the morning covered in frost.

Some examples are:

Rudbekia laciniata, Sedums, Monada, Verbenba bonsariensis, Veronicastum virginicum and Phlomis plus the great, slightly goofy, flower heads of Hydrangeas.

Colourful deciduous plants

Shrubs and trees with interesting colours and textures are: Acer griseuk, Acer negundo ‘Winter Lightening’, Betula Grayswood Ghost, the twisted branches of Corylus contort, any of the Cornus especially Midwinter Fire, dwarf Willows like ‘Nana’ plus Rubus cockburnianus (this name sends giggles into any horticultural class as you can imagine).


Half the value of having ornamental grasses in your garden is that during Winter they go a hay/bronze colour and still move wonderfully in the wind. Grasses that really retain their shape are Calimagrostis Karl Foerster, Panicum Heavy Metal and any of the Miscanthus varieties.


Pyracantha, Catoneaster and Berberis all keep their berries way into Winter and are great cheap birdfeeds.

Fruit and Flowers

Some trees and shrubs have learnt to come on stage when for most the show is over.

Malus Red Sentinal keeps its bright red fruit on its branches almost the whole way through Winter. Mahonia Lionel Fortescue has lovely fragrant yellow flowers, plus other flowering plants make their appearance. Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, Helleborous, some of the Clematis, Winter Jasmine, Winter Heather and of course Snowdrops.


Having water in the garden can be a really wonderful luxury but in Winter it becomes essential. It reflects the ethereal sky and emphasises the stillness of Winter. So after a day Xmas shopping and having retreated yourself from steaming at the queues, the worries that you have forgotten something and the extra mince pie you know you shouldn’t have eaten, let your Winter garden help you pare down to what is most important and beautiful in life.

Where to visit

I was struck recently by a visit to West Dean near Lavant, West Sussex. It has some wonderful Winter structure with flowing hedges, smart rows of Victorian greenhouses, cloud pruned Yew trees plus classical pergolas and a pool. Also there are lots of trained fruit in different shapes and Winter is the perfect time to see how they have been pruned and how the structure of the branches has been created. Well worth a trip this month.

January tasks

  • Time to prune your roses.
  • All the shoots from last year’s Wysteria growth can be pruned back to two buds    from the flowering spur, apart from any runners that you want to direct into a framework.
  • Apple
  •  and pear trees need reducing depending on their age.
  • You can begin to force Rhubarb now.
  • Greenhouses and sheds can be cleaned and sorted out.

By Andrew Staib, Principal Designer of Glorious Gardens www.gloriousgardenssussex.co.uk/




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