A photographic celebration of the pared-down winter garden

For some, the idea of ​​a “winter garden” is an oxymoron, a horticultural contradiction in terms using two words so profoundly and unmistakably incompatible that putting them side by side is nonsense.

But a brilliant new book by British photographer Andrew Montgomery and garden writer Clare Foster puts that idea firmly to bed by celebrating the sleek, uncluttered beauty of the garden during those quieter months of the year, the sculptural quality of seed heads and topiary. with the delicate intertwining of bare branches silhouetted against a winter sky.

Self-published by Montgomery through his publishing company Montgomery Press (more on that later), Winter Gardens is a lavishly illustrated and exceptionally beautiful book where Foster’s thoughtful, knowledgeable and polished text accompanies the story perfectly. deeply atmospheric, almost monochromatic atmosphere of Montgomery. photographs.

Twelve great gardens feature within its pages, the stories of their creation told in a series of finely crafted essays that begin with the onset of winter and the theme of gentle decay, and continue through the middle of winter and a contemplation of figure and structure, before ending with the end of winter. and the “timid flowering” of January and February. Intertwined are a series of small, practical pieces where Foster takes an incisive look at some of the key elements used in each of these wonderful conservatories.

Its celebration of great horticulture aside, Winter Gardens is a photographic tour de force, an exquisite collectible that showcases Montgomery’s exceptional artistry as both a photographer and bookmaker.

Shot extensively during the second lockdown in early 2021 using a lightweight Fujifilm GFX 50R medium format camera and his two favorite lenses (63mm and 30mm), printed on the highest quality paper and using the highest quality inks, every page of this 320-page publication demonstrates his perfectionism right down to the unwaxed dust jacket cover and the matte ‘varnish’ used on each page to preserve the quality of the images.

Known for his clean style of garden photography that echoes the subtle elegance of the pre-digital era, Montgomery says his job is to recreate the kind of aesthetic you get while filming. “This sweetness, this subtlety. So while I now take digital photos, I treat each digital image file the same way I would have printed from negatives in the past.

Mapperton in Dorset is famous for its giant specimen topiary yews which have been prepared and trimmed into living statuary pieces and are expertly cared for by its head gardener Steve Lannin

I had to finance the printing, which was terrifying, especially since my usual income as a photographer had taken a hit during the lockdowns

Is it his perfectionism that pushed him to choose the path of self-publishing? “Yes definitely. Although I’ve worked with many different publishers over the years, I had already taken the self-publishing route with a previous book. [on Petersham Nurseries] because I wanted to control every aspect, from layout and design to print quality. And it worked very well. With Winter Gardens, I wanted to make the kind of book that I knew no conventional publishing house would bet on, just in case they didn’t sell enough copies to cover the costs. I wanted it to feel as good to the touch as it looks, using the best quality materials, where I had to choose the images and how they are used.

It was all a giant leap of faith, he admits. “I had to finance the printing, which was terrifying, especially since my usual income as a photographer had taken a hit during the lockdowns.”

Photographing gardens in the depths of winter was also physically exhausting, working in freezing weather which quickly drained his camera batteries and meant that equipment had to be given time to gradually acclimate to low temperatures to avoid the condensation problems. Time constraints were another obstacle. “You only have a brief opportunity to photograph things like frost, snow and fog before conditions inevitably change. With one garden in particular, I had to visit it four times before I got the shots I needed.

“It also took months for the printed books to arrive by ship from China, which was annoying because he kept delaying and delaying.” They finally arrived just four days before the book’s November 4 launch. “When I was able to hold a physical copy in my hands, I was so relieved and excited that my heart raced.”

I was blown away by people’s response… how people reacted to the book when they held it in their hands, how they commented on the touch, feel and quality of it

But he needn’t have worried. The reaction was so positive that the first print sold out by Christmas, with orders pouring in from all over the world, including New Zealand, the United States and Japan. “I was blown away by the response from people. Not just to the photography and Clare’s wonderful text, but also to how people reacted to the book when they held it in their hands, how they commented on the touch, feel and quality of this one.

A further print is currently in the works (expected delivery in May), along with two special signed editions accompanied by an exclusive A4 photographic print, all of which can be pre-ordered from its website, montgomerypress.co.uk.

Those who want a gardening book that reads as well as it looks will also appreciate Winter Gardens for Foster’s illuminating and informative text, which expertly captures the atmosphere and mood of each garden while sharing many tips on dirt under nails. how gardeners can create their own little slice of winter beauty.

In the case, for example, of Sussex Prairie Garden in West Sussex, an eight-acre garden famous for its naturalistic style of planting and the use of large drifts of contemporary perennials, the ornamental grasses Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster”, Panicum ‘Squaw’, Molinia ‘Heidebraut’ and Miscanthus ‘Ghana’ are some of the varieties singled out for their exceptional ability to provide winter interest.

In the case of Hillside, the 19-acre country garden of famed British landscape designer and writer Dan Pearson (who also wrote the foreword to the book), it’s the turn of Umbelliferae species to be in the spotlight. from Foster as she explains how their flowers — think overturned umbrellas — provide lasting seasonal interest in the shape of wintry architectural silhouettes.

Mapperton in Dorset is another famous British garden, famed for its giant specimen topiary yew trees which have been prepared and trimmed into living statuary pieces and are expertly maintained by its head gardener Steve Lannin. His knowledge of how to prune, nurture and renovate yew topiary is also distilled by Foster at the end of this particular chapter while Montgomery’s photographs do an exceptional job of capturing the special theater and magic of this historic garden.

Among the other excellent guides to winter interest provided by Foster in the book are a list of some of the best topiary gardens in the world; advice on growing tall witch hazel, inspired by designer Arabella Lennox Boyd’s collection of these beautiful late-winter flowering shrubs in her 10-acre Gresgarth Hall garden in Scotland; an outline of the growth of snowdrops; a list of some of the late Christopher Lloyd’s favorite fragrant winter shrubs in the gardens of Great Dixter; and helpful advice from Benjamin Pope (the head gardener of a stately walled garden in East Sussex designed by Arne Maynard) on how to maintain boxwood hedges to keep them healthy, bushy and happy.

In short, this is one of those special books that anyone who loves gardens and photography is sure to treasure.

This week in the garden

Sort old seed stores and group them according to their ideal sowing dates. Check the expiration dates on the back of packets and discard any that are a few years past the dates given, as they are generally unlikely to have good germination rates.

As long as the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged, it’s a good time of year to move deciduous shrubs. Just keep in mind that the bigger/older the plant, the more difficult it will be to move it successfully, both in terms of weight and size, and the ability to re-establish a viable root system. For this reason, it is best to prepare large specimens a year in advance by “digging” around the root systems. Smaller/younger specimens should be moved quickly, making sure to maintain a good/large root ball during excavation and preparing the new planting hole in advance. See rhs.org.uk for step-by-step instructions.

Dates for your diary

February 26, 2022: GLDA Seminar Plan Trees, Plant Trees, Planet Trees; Creative Design with Trees in our Landscape, Streetscape and Gardens is taking place online as a livestreamed event with a range of guest speakers, tickets from €45 to €70 can be booked online at glda.ie

Michael E. Marquez