How to build a winter garden
Recent months have made us realise the immeasurable value our garden spaces can add to life at home. But here in the UK, our time spent outdoors tends to tail off towards the end of autumn, which means there’s a huge chunk of the year in which our living boundary lines shrink as we retreat further indoors. Now, with socialising outside fast becoming our new normal, we speak to two fervent all-weather garden devotees: interior designer Abigail Ahern and Miria Harris, a landscape and garden designer, who share their tips and tricks for helping your great (or small) outdoors reach its full potential, even when the temperature plummets.
Lighting is one of the most important factors to consider when creating a home, yet it is often the most overlooked aspect in our outdoor spaces, but the same principles apply and you can cater for every mood (and occasion) with a layered lighting scheme. Dramatic uplighting is a wonderful way to showcase sculptural plants or statues – much like strategic picture lights inside the house – while a string of fairy lights will lend a cosy, intimate feel, particularly in a courtyard setting. Hurricane lanterns also offer an instant, flexible and economical solution.
For interiors maven Abigail Ahern, her own East London garden continues to be a ripe source of inspiration for her dramatic designs, and often provides a lush backdrop for her hugely popular Instagram tutorials and mass-subscribed client masterclasses. ‘I totally think we can use gardens more in autumn and winter than we do, it’s so restorative spending time out there. And, if you light the garden, it makes you want to linger longer,’ she says. Hackney-based landscape and garden designer Miria Harris agrees: ‘Lighting the garden can also encourage you to eat out in the autumn, but if you invest in a good garden lighting scheme, you can enjoy your garden even when it is too cold to be in it,’ she says. ‘A soft golden glow over plants and flowers is the best kind of ambient lighting and makes you feel connected with nature.’
Lighting isn’t the only aspect that can be borrowed from our interior spaces. As her Instagram films show, Ahern is a dab hand at deftly styling the sort of objects you would typically see indoors: chandeliers, marble tables, cosy blankets and, crucially, an outdoor kitchen. ‘The materials I use are diverse, from wooden benches and chairs, to marble tables, to ceramic coffee tables. It’s a beautiful blend of natural materials which, with all the planting, looks great,’ she says. In her garden, Ahern has carved out two eating areas and installed an outdoor fireplace, kitchen and fire pit. ‘I am obsessed with being outside in winter and using the garden as much as I possibly can. I used to live in the States in the Midwest, which has the coolest winters, and yet everybody would barbecue in the snow a couple of times a week. I got so addicted to it, so I’ve continued doing just that. I think one of the best things I ever did was put in a WWOO kitchen along with a Big Green Egg barbecue – I’ll cook weekend lunches on the barbecue wrapped up in a blanket. And fire pits are great – I think there is something so wonderful about sitting outside around an open fire.’
It seems this convivial atmosphere is something we are all craving, with sales of kitchens, fire pits and chimineas now soaring. ‘Gardens are sociable spaces, and I’m married to a chef, so I know all too well how people love to huddle round the stove in a kitchen,’ says Harris. ‘I very rarely design fixed fire pits because there are some really lovely portable designs on the market these days. The key thing is to allow for some hard standing for it to sit on. Your grass won’t last long if you have a big furnace of a cauldron on it.’
At this time of the year, when the trees shed their leaves, our privacy sadly goes with them which can be particularly problematic in densely populated urban areas. For a quick fix, Ahern recommends adding as many large potted plants and trees to create an instant feeling of cosiness. ‘I designed my garden space to feel quite jungly and secluded, so it’s very private. There are 14 trees, all quite large with a lot of foliage,’ she says. ‘Tall bamboo plants or grasses that have movement and sway in the breeze look just as good in winter as they do in summer – or something scented: Mimosa is amazing as it has the most beautiful fragrant yellow flowers in January that make me think of the South of France. Bay trees are great – they have a subtle smell and are fab to use in cooking. I also have fig, olive and lilac trees.’
Evergreen screen planting is an attractive fixed solution and will also act as a wind-breaker, making your outdoor space more hospitable for that little bit longer, though it will take a little time to establish. Harris encourages us to look further than traditional sprawling ivy or clipped conifer hedges. ‘There are lots of lovely evergreen climbing plants and some wonderful wildlife-friendly hedging options that can make you feel snug but give something back during the winter months,’ she says. ‘Clematis urophylla – also known as ‘Winter Beauty’ – with its pretty bell-shaped flowers (from December to March) and its bronze-tinted foliage is great to cover a trellis, while Viburnum tinus Eve Price makes for a lovely scented evergreen hedge – plus the bees love it too.’
A considered scheme rich with colour and scent will lend a new lease of life in this otherwise dormant period. Successional planting is key to achieving this, though Harris understands this is not always possible in modest plots. ‘Not all of us have the space to plant something different for every month of the year, so we often need to choose plants that work hard for their money. One of my favourites is the winter flowering Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill. Planted by a front door, it will lift your spirits with its sublime fragrance, even on a bitterly cold day.’ Harris also recommends Nandina domestica, also known as Heavenly Bamboo, for pockets of colour. ‘There is a dwarf version called Fire Power which really lives up to its name. In autumn the foliage of this plant lights up in explosive bursts of rust orange and red, like little plant bonfires,’ she adds.
While planting schemes play their part, it’s important not to forget the structure that holds it all together, explains Harris, who emphasises that the choice of hard landscaping materials and the layout of the garden are central to enjoying a garden all year road. ‘Any hard landscaping that feels OK to walk barefoot on, in my mind, can convey a sense of warmth. Tricks of colour often fail as pale, light colours don’t stay pale and light for long outside, but if the outside feels as comfortable as the inside then it will be warm and inviting,’ she says. ‘There was a trend at one point for gardens to have lovely polished terrazzo patios, but they just don’t work in our climate; I don’t think anyone wants an ice rink for a garden in the winter.’ The choice of materials is likely to be led by the garden’s aspect or size. ‘Sometimes I’ll make a connection with the interior hard landscaping to create a seamless flow from inside to out, but other times I’ll celebrate the difference. Brick pavers are the low maintenance choice, as long as you’re happy to enjoy moss and creeping perennial weeds softening the gaps. For a current job, I’m using a combination of bricks laid on edge and reclaimed Yorkstone flags laid randomly and I’m loving how they work together – one apparently haphazard and intuitive and the other very strict and geometrical.’
The winter months means it’s inevitable that there will be more time spent indoors, but it’s important to connect the two spaces somehow to maintain a sense of space and fluidity. Glazing really comes into its own, funnelling much-needed sunlight during the shorter days, through something as simple as having the back door open while you cook can work wonders. ‘I try to keep the garden door open as much possible to let the cooler breeze in; autumn colour and winter light can be mesmerising, and the smell of the garden after it has just rained is heavenly,’ says Harris.
Simple styling tricks inside your home will also create a seamless cohesion, something Ahern is an expert at doing. ‘In my masterclass I constantly talk about how important it is to bring nature indoors. Not only does it connect the two spaces – gardens with interiors – but it softens and adds such a tactile element to any room’. Typically, this involves mirroring muted mossy colour palettes or introducing materials traditionally reserved for outdoor spaces such as rattan, jute, wicker or concrete, with plenty of indoor plants thrown in for good measure.
But it’s important to appreciate this quiet, peaceful time for what it is: a very different experience to those heady sun-drenched days of summer. ‘I think that on the whole when people think of gardens they do picture them in the summer, lush and full of flowers,’ says Harris. ‘It is always good to talk about the seasons, as our relationship with different times of the year has a huge effect on our wellbeing. Gardens are constantly moving through cycles of sleeping, dying, birthing and waking, just like us. And bare branches in winter are important, they make you appreciate the blossom all the more in the spring.’