Graham Stewart Thomas' winter garden at Polesden Lacey

The winter garden at Polesden Lacey in Surrey

Jamie Harris, Head Gardener at Polesden Lacey, describes Graham Stewart 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.  

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 blown over.   

Colour and fragrance

Walking the path to the old kitchen garden, you can smell the winter garden before you see it. The 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."

" 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, still much as Thomas left it, is dominated by a wide central bed of bright yellow winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), interspersed with a variety of pure white snowdrops (Galanthus), 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.

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

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 herbaceous border 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.  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.