The Literary Gardner
By Carol Howard
The late, legendary British gardener Rosemary Verey (1918–2001) penned these words about winter: “I had to begin to appreciate winter scents, to notice the colour and texture of tree bark, to discover lichen and moss on the walls, to watch winter buds open and bulbs push their way through the soil.”
The author of numerous influential garden books and a popular lecturer on both sides of the Atlantic, Verey and her husband, architectural historian David Verey, began in the 1950s to redesign the gardens of their own estate, the 17th–century rectory Barnsley House, in Gloucestershire. The “Laburnum Walk” that she created for her home—a breathtaking tunnel of golden laburnum chains tumbling from above, underplanted with her signature parade of majestic purple allia—became one of the world’s most-photographed garden scenes.
A sought–after garden consultant, Verey had clients who included the Prince of Wales and Elton John. In our region, she designed the elegant gardens of the private estate Sagee Manor in Highlands. Although she served as a landscape architect to wealthy clients, Verey was best known for adapting grand European historic design to modern, post–war, modest home gardens.
Verey’s most important contribution to garden literature was the 1988 book The Garden in Winter. Here, she urges readers to work against the melancholy mood that might come with shorter, colder days in this season and the habit of viewing the winter garden as a graveyard of spent annuals and dormant perennials.
“I…had to realize that winter’s beauty—clear and spare—is quite different from the freshness of spring blossom, the lushness of summer flowers or the richness of autumn leaves,” she writes. To nurture this awareness, Verey teaches us how to see, not just look at, the winter landscape and to plan ahead for a pleasing winter view. We must, first, attend to the shapes, height and texture of evergreen shrubs and trees, as well as the stark silhouettes of branches against the low sun of the winter sky. We must begin to recognize spaces and patterns. Above all, we must become attuned to the line of the garden path and the unexpected vista—“the hidden breadths of vision.”
Winter’s palette—hues of brown, black, green, yellow and white—should also draw our attention. These subtleties are “restrictive enough to curb the excesses of even the most daring gardeners,” writes Verey. We see these colors as a muted backdrop to the surprising reds of holly berries and rose hips.
It may be true, as Verey observes, that the “garden in winter is the absolute test of the true gardener.” However, Asheville area residents who would rather appreciate than cultivate a winter garden may take vicarious satisfaction in the skilled designs of the North Carolina Arboretum. One need not venture far from the Arboretum’s Baker Exhibit Center to discover the corkscrew-shaped branches of a tree that is far more impressive in February than in May: the European filbert cultivar popularly known as Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).
Those of us home gardeners who are willing to wait a few years for the winter framework of our plantings to mature may take comfort in Verey’s wisdom: “The true gardener has patience; we must not forever be craving an instant garden.”
Rosemary Verey’s out-of-print books are widely available through independent booksellers. To plan a visit to the North Carolina Arboretum, visit ncarboretum.org.