Winter's Stark Simplicity


By Rosemary Verey

Timber Press

168 pp., $24.95

Sometimes a garden book comes along that is more than a catalog of tips and plants; more than a which-way-up-tulip-bulbs-go sort of book. A garden book, indeed, with an attitude.

Rosemary Verey's "The Garden in Winter" is this kind of thing. The book was first out in 1988, but now it's available in its first American paperback edition.

This classic has a list of plants, it's true, and plenty of tips. But the whole affair - including evocative photographs - actually expounds the subject of its first chapter: "A Plea for the Garden in Winter."

Verey writes provocatively: "A garden in winter is the absolute test of the true gardener. Fair weather gardeners are to gardens what interior decorators are to buildings - they only know half the story."

I will admit to a seasonal pattern in my own gardening habits. In autumn I weary of the whole business. It is then that I think "the absolute test of the true gardener" comes into play. A true gardener, no doubt, would be tidying up, planting bulbs, giving the grass its year-end mow.... But all I do is yawn and conclude that gardening is really a criminal waste of time and effort and I might as well let nature turn the place back to wilderness. Wouldn't that be far more beautiful than anything gardeners can devise or titivate?

Not that I don't buy bulbs. They are far too inviting to leave hanging in garden centers. I buy lots of them. But then I somehow don't get round to planting them.

One might expect the grip of this autumnal apathy to tighten as fall shifts into winter - the winter of our discontent.

But it does not work like that. The baring of the trees, the dying away of unnecessary growth, the stripping down to essentials that winter is, even the reduction of color to a few striking stems like rubus or cornus, and the refinement of shape to only the boldest masses of evergreen shrubs rejuvenates all my interest in the garden.

In some ways it is the time of year I like best. And when the first frost strikes - usually it sparkles irresistibly on a brilliant, clear morning - I am a gardener once more. Now the ground is too hard to get the bulbs in. But at the first sign of softening, in they go; it doesn't matter how blue your fingers turn as you shove them under the crust. All you have to do is visualize the effect when spring comes and they inevitably push themselves into the light and startle the earth with their fragile brightness.

And out I go with the clippers and the shears, trimming and snipping, piling sloppy leaves and dry, dead stems on the compost heap, and digging. There is nothing like the primeval satisfaction of turning over the dark soil in midwinter with a sharp spade, burying the weeds, preparing the ground for next year's sweet peas or runner beans. Actually, I wouldn't mind not planting anything in this pristinely dug earth - a pity to spoil it, really.

All these winter pleasures are celebrated in Verey's book, and much more. But the chief aim and effect of her book is not so much to do with gardening in winter as to do with "seeing" the garden in winter.

"If," she argues, "our gardens are to be more than graves commemorating summer's beauty, we must start by using our eyes. The problem all too often is that, when we look, we do not see."

The first time I dipped into this book, I thought: She is not talking about gardening, but about looking at nature - and that means seeing the long shadows, the snow, the frost, the silhouettes of branch and twig, the berries and stems and bark, all made visible by winter's stark simplicity. And that is not exclusive to gardens.

I still think this is her real theme. But what she does is apply such conscious seeing of winter splendor to our awareness of gardens that we begin to see them not as exceptions to nature - and not as areas that only come into their own in the three other seasons.

Such seeing is not, of course, limited to gardeners; it is as much the province of those who like to visit and look at gardens. In Britain, however, I suspect that the national obsession with garden-visiting is still not much of a winter pursuit. Yet not all gardens close their gates to the public in the dark months. Some, like the marvelous topiary garden of Levens Hall in Cumbria, "allow people to wander round" at this time of year, I have just been told. "To pay, they just use our honesty box."

As I thought, winter-garden visitors can be trusted.

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