Mediterranean Garden Society

Whatever happened to winter?

by Yvonne Barton
photographs by Yvonne Barton

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 112, April 2023

The photo at the top of this page shows the garden in December after an extreme air frost coated all the plants and trees with ice. Not only did it look very beautiful but the concentrated frost helped eliminate the olive fly that has started to become a problem in Umbria. (Photo Yvonne Barton)

Yvonne Barton lives and gardens in Umbria, central Italy. She writes: We tend to focus our gardening efforts on summer, even though most of the floral interest is in ‘spring’. In summer we expect - and usually get - hot and dry weather. There may be summer storms, but this water mostly runs off. We worry about how to cope with summer ‘drought’, but it is always hot and dry in summer so can this regular event really count as ‘drought’?

View across the Nestore valley in summer

Winter is, by contrast, a precious time: gentle light from a sun that is low in the sky. A time for repose, regeneration and – most importantly - rain. A time for planning and planting and pruning. A time to savour small delights, and colour in different forms.

Same view across the Nestore valley in winter

Winter matters, and whether it is wet, dry, snowing, warm, freezing, windy … it controls the growing season in the following spring.

Low lights on the pond in winter

Oblique sunlight on Arbutus fruit and flowers

Our appreciation of colour Is more sophisticated in winter and we notice little details, such as the bronze leaf tips of tall Cistus ladanifer. As the great prairie plantsman Piet Oudolf observed: “Brown is also a colour”.

“Brown is also a colour”

But we also enjoy the intense colour of the little bulbs that bloom from late January.

Iris reticulata in February

Crocus tommassiniana in February

In the first six months of 2022, central Italy received only 50% of the amount of rain that would normally be expected to fall. September floods were not enough to re-fill Lake Trasimeno and the water level remained frighteningly low. October was warm and dry, no rain at all. Happily, November got some rain and the Lake level rose a little – at long last. December was very wet so now the lake is higher but still at -1.2m below the ‘normal’. And in 2023 we are experiencing Dry January.

Lake Trasimeno reduced to a ‘beach’ in August 2022

Is this winter drought going to be the norm? Should we water our gardens in winter? Our gardens and the agricultural crops all rely on the winter rains. Let it snow.

Flowers and berries collected on 11 January 2023

If you go out into the garden today and look around, I believe that you will be surprised at the range of flowers blooming even now at this dark time. You need to look carefully because some are quite small. Others are easily dismissed as ‘common’ plants, but I believe they are precious nonetheless.

This afternoon I have picked a bunch of flowers in my garden:
Anemone coronaria, Anisodontea malvastroides, Coronilla glauca, Iris unguicularis (Algerian Iris), Lavandula dentata, Jasminum nudiflorum (Winter Jasmine), Lonicera fragrantissima (Winter Honeysuckle), Rosa ‘Zepherine Drouhin’ and ‘Lady Hillingdon’, Rosmarinus ‘Majorcan Pink’, Teucrium fruticans ‘Azureum’, Ulex europeus (Gorse), Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’.

Not to mention branches of colourful berries from Arbutus, Cotoneaster, Juniper and Pyracantha.

A honey bee visiting Lonicera fragrantissima in February

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Ode to the West Wind, composed by Percy Bysshe Shelley 1819 whilst visiting the Parco delle Cascine near Firenze.

Watch Yvonne talking about the garden in winter to a meeting of the Mediterranean Garden Society Italy branch.

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