Graham Stuart Thomas' Winter Garden

Tiny yellow acconite buds

Discover the unsung beauty of Graham Stuart Thomas' winter garden, a hidden masterpiece that comes to life with colour and fragrance in the depths of the winter frost.

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. 

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.

The Polesden Lacey Winter Garden is the only surviving example created by renowned plantsman and garden designer Graham Stuart Thomas. 

In 1957, at a time when few people considered winter as a time to enjoy the garden, Graham Stuart Thomas published Colour in the Winter Garden, a book based on the garden he created here at Polesden Lacey. This was a visionary idea, predating the current trend for winter gardens by almost half a century.

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

Restoration and renewal

Renovation work on the Winter Garden began in  2017. 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.

Stage two of the restoration process was to mirror 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 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

Summer versus winter

In the relatively small space of the Winter Garden, the plants are smaller in size and humbler in nature than the flamboyant and ostentatious blooms we enjoy in summer.

The rich colours, bold forms and curious aromas of these hardy plants are evidence that the garden can still thrive, despite the sun’s absence and the harsh winter frost.  

Pause for a moment and contemplate the resilience of the Winter Garden, quietly encouraging us to be at our best, whatever the weather.