A version of this piece about winter was first published in English Garden magazine, when I worked as a horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
You can almost feel the earth tilting towards the sun as we approach the end of winter. This is the time to see the grand old dame of Kew without her theatrical summer makeup, when the weight and wisdom of age show through.
Standing on the mound of the Temple of Aeolus, I’m surrounded by the Royal Botanic Garden’s two-acre woodland garden. By January, the riot of autumn is over and the garden has shed almost all of its leaves. The woodland garden collections lay emphasis on herbaceous perennials and now, without the flimflam of summer, with all but the most architectural of seedheads cut down, I can see the structure of the garden most clearly. The green turf offers striking contrast to the dun-coloured duvet of fallen leaves on the beds.
To the north of my vantage point, the order beds sleep under a rich layer of mulch, dark ribs to the rose pergola’s spinal column. To the west, the leafless trees allow a view of the palm house, built with the cutting-edge technology of the 1840s. Beyond its curving flanks is Syon Vista, manned by evergreen holm oak sentinels, Quercus ilex, and ending at the mysterious River Thames.
January is the month when Kew reveals its lengthy history most potently. Without the leaves, you can see clearly the contours of the landscape. This mound I’m standing on is made from the spoil of the Palm House pond. On the Thames’ floodplain, each dell and hill is man-made, monuments to the landscape-makers of the past 250 years – Bridgeman, Kent, Chambers, Nesfield, Thistleton-Dyer and one Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, whose wholesale remodelling of eighteenth century England will be celebrated this year, the 300th anniversary of his birth.
You can imagine the follies, menageries and tableaux of the old ‘pleasure grounds’ of the 1700s, overlaid by the more serious scientific purpose of the botanic garden, a powerhouse for industrial-scale production of commodities in the colonies of the Empire. In come the ranks of trees, planted by botanical family according to the classification of Bentham and Hooker. In January, they are extraordinary: by the Ice House the grey sinuous curtains of the huge weeping beech Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendular’; the graceful wineglass Zelkova by the temperate house; the complex gnarl of the persian ironwood, Parrotia persica, in the Duke’s Garden; the freckled limbs of the lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana, near the waterlily house; the still hollow between the vast pillars of the Redwood Grove.
Retreating from the weather or returning from a couple of hours striding through Kew’s 320 acres, it’s thrilling to enter the steamy palm house or the still, quiet temperate house (currently undergoing major restoration), or wander through the exotic biomes of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, trying to spot the Chinese water dragons who stalk the undergrowth, keeping the pest population down.
Without the blowsy flowers and lush meadows and satiny tree canopies of summer, the statues, gates, temples, conservatories and magnificent glasshouse take centre stage. I can see the stark curve of the Davies alpine house, where minor miracles bloom, like the first of the tiny flamboyant Junos, like Iris nicolai, and the highly scented early daffodils. The spidery yellow flowers of the witch hazels, Hamamelis, send their sharp sweet scent on the air. To the north, the low sun picks out the bleached plumes and gold sprays of the stately grass garden, while the sweeping lawns, here and there flush lilac with the first Crocus.
As a gardener working at Kew, you are allowed to cycle through the gardens. At this time of year, cycling from the southern Lion Gate up to the Melon Yard via Victoria Gate, you pass under many tall mature tree specimens where thrushes sing from high up, establishing their territory, their song pooling around their perches. If sound had colour and you could view it from above, it would be like a series of overlapping circles, the colour concentrating towards the centre of each one.
In the subdued light, among the quiet bare trees, bright colours are amplified, the bumble bee sounds loudly, the shrubby honeysuckle fragrance is otherworldly, singing of the richness of the season ahead, urging us on.
There’s a danger I’ll get carried away with overambitious plans for the coming year; I can see how to extend the all-weather paths and open up the grassy glades, how to replant certain collections to reflect more natural associations. Like the Sower, I can already feel the weight of the season’s harvest in the cluster of seeds in my palm.
Spring’s sluice gate will be opened before you know it and the season will rush on like a stream in spate. Don’t plan too hard. Savour the moment.