Restoring Graham Stuart Thomas’ Winter Garden at Polesden Lacey

A bed of yellow aconites in the winter garden at Polesden Lacey

Senior Gardener Will Burridge explains how the garden team here at Polesden are revitalising our Graham Stewart Thomas-designed winter garden.

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 garden is focussed around three Persian ironwoods (Parrotia persica), in a central square bed. These stately trees bloom with small, vivid crimson flowers in winter and also boast beautiful flaky bark and superb autumn colour. Below them is a stunning golden carpet of winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis).

A bed of winter acconites and snowdrops
The winter garden at Polesden Lacey in Surrey
A bed of winter acconites and snowdrops

This central bed is surrounded by longer borders with specimen winter flowering shrubs such as Viburnum, sweet box, and winter-flowering honeysuckle which draw you into the garden with their beautiful scent. Add to this a collection of elegant snowdrops and colourful hellebores and you have a garden to lift the spirits right through the worst of the winter months from January until the arrival of spring.

Unfortunately over the years the garden has become overgrown and is no longer a fair representation of the visionary book it was based on. So, in 2017 the garden team at Polesden Lacey embarked on a restoration project phased over a number of years to rejuvenate the garden. 

The first phase focussed on allowing more light into the area and completely replanting the first border as you enter the garden, which had become an evergreen mass of overgrown shrubs. The three Persian Ironwoods were sympathetically pruned to raise their crowns and the shrubs in the border renovated and divided which opened up a huge area for replanting. 

A brand new scheme was designed by the garden team inspired by the ideas in Graham Stuart Thomas’ book. The garden is alive with colour throughout the dull winter months:  enjoy the vividly coloured stems of dogwoods, the foliage tints on elephant ears and heathers, the showy flowers of hellebores and Iris, and the delicious scent of sweet box and Mahonia.

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

The next phase of the restoration project will be to mirror this new border scheme on the opposite side of the path and begin renovating the borders further back into the garden. 

You’ll find the Winter Garden in the formal gardens, just past the Head Gardener’s Cottage. It’s at its best between January and March; come and see it in bloom now, then return next year to see the next stage of this exciting restoration project. 

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