Graham Stuart Thomas' Winter Garden

Jamie Harris, Head Gardener Jamie Harris Head Gardener
The winter garden at Polesden Lacey in Surrey

Jamie Harris, Head Gardener at Polesden Lacey, describes Graham Stuart Thomas' winter garden, a hidden masterpiece that comes to life with colour and fragrance in the depths of the winter frost.

Graham Stuart Thomas is a household name throughout the UK, particularly for gardeners like me who consider him to be one of the fathers of modern horticulture. He was Gardens Adviser to the National Trust for over 20 years and in that time he left his mark on so many of the gardens we still care for today.  

Polesden Lacey, Surrey
A family in the kitchen garden at Polesden Lacey, Surrey
Polesden Lacey, Surrey

Lovely roses

He is best-known for his work with roses, championing several lesser-known varieties with the aim of ‘bring[ing] forth these lovely things from retirement’. His rose gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, Mottisfont and, of course, Polesden Lacey are breath-taking examples of a proper English garden.  

The unsung beauty of the winter garden

Few people realise that Thomas’ expertise stretched beyond the gentle splendour of the rose garden. But Polesden Lacey’s Winter Garden is an iconic example of the sheer breadth of his creative vision.   Tucked away behind the gardener’s cottage in a quiet corner of the formal gardens, the Winter Garden blooms with vibrant colour and fragrance during the coldest months of the year when the rose blossoms and other summer flowers have all gone over. He wrote a best-selling book called ‘Colour In The Winter Garden’ in 1957, a time when few people considered winter to be a time for enjoying the garden, but the only Winter Garden designed by Thomas left in existence is the one here at Polesden Lacey.   

The central bed features a striking carpet of aconites
A bed of yellow aconites in the winter garden at Polesden Lacey
The central bed features a striking carpet of aconites

Colour and fragrance

Walking the path to the old kitchen garden, you can smell the Winter Garden before you see it. Sarcococca, sometimes known as Sweet Box or Christmas Box, announces itself with a heady aroma, despite being a rather humble-looking shrub with tiny, delicate blooms.    

" I have found that Sarcococca makes an excellent winter cut flower too. The stems last well in water and fill the room with a fantastic scent for many days."
- Jamie Harris, Head Gardener, Polesden Lacey

The garden itself is dominated by a wide central bed of bright yellow winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), interspersed with a variety of pure white snowdrops (Galanthus sp.), some dashed with streaks of green or yellow. Three Persian Ironwood trees (Parrotia persica) form the centrepiece, drawing the eye upwards to a dark canopy of crimson buds.

Restoration and renewal

In 2017 we were busy beginning a renovation process in the Winter Garden.  The first phase focused on allowing more light into the area and completely replanting the south border as you enter the area, which had become an evergreen mass of overgrown shrubs. The three Persian Ironwoods were sympathetically pruned to raise their crowns while the hard pruning of some of the huge Mahonia and Sarcococca shrubs tantalisingly revealed large areas of open soil which were replanted with the likes of interesting and unusual Hellebores, Bergenias, Dogwoods, Skimmias and much more besides.  

The newly-planted border is already full of colour
A new bed, with brightly coloured plants in the Polesden Lacey inter garden
The newly-planted border is already full of colour

We used Graham Stuart Thomas’ famous book when researching and choosing these plants so hopefully the great man would approve.

This autumn we completed stage two of our restoration process by mirroring this new planting scheme across the path to create a whole new bed where a simple fernery previously stood. 

The only historic image we have of this area clearly shows a mirrored scheme here, although it was taken before Thomas installed his important winter scheme.  Incidentally, many of the ferns we removed were used in the newly planted foliage beds along the landscaped Dog Grave path.

The gardens at Polesden Lacey in 1963
A black and white photograph showing the gardens at Polesden Lacey in 1963
The gardens at Polesden Lacey in 1963

Still to come.

This restoration process will continue again next year when we start to renovate some of the older shrubs around the perimeter borders, creating more planting pockets in the process.  We also plan to create a glade of white-stemmed Birch trees and carpets of cyclamen that can be seen through the black gates at the north end.

The biggest stage of redevelopment of this area will come as part of our wide-ranging ‘legacy project’ where we hope to extend the winter garden all the way down the slope to the Rock Garden at the bottom.  

Summer versus winter

Sitting in the quiet shade of the ironwoods, I can’t help think of the differences between Thomas’ gardens here at Polesden Lacey. 

In summer, his Edwardian Rose Garden and stunning double Herbaceous Borders are abuzz with activity. Visitors enjoy the kaleidoscope of colours and intoxicating fragrances as much as the bees and everything is bathed in the warmth of the sun. It’s a place for seasonal celebration and wonder.

Hardy winter acconites in bloom at Polesden Lacey
Tiny yellow acconite buds
Hardy winter acconites in bloom at Polesden Lacey

In the relatively small space of the Winter Garden, the plants are smaller in size and humbler in nature in comparison with the flamboyant and ostentatious blooms in his summer designs. But here, the rich colours, bold forms and curious aromas of these hardy plants remind me that the garden still thrives despite the sun’s absence and the harsh winter frost.  

Although this is a place of peace and contemplation, I feel that Thomas has left a strong message here, encouraging us to be at our best, whatever the weather.