It’s worth taking a good long look, now that the leaves have fallen, at the bare outlines of the garden their absence reveals. The opportunity for a fresh look doesn’t last long: the scene will soon be too familiar to take in as a fresh sensation. Familiarity is always a gardener’s problem; any chance to break the spell and see what a stranger would see is worth taking. There are always surprises, I find, always anomalies and frequently eyesores.
The evergreens, for example, are bigger than when you last saw them clearly, in full profile. I am amazed at how a fir has spired up above one skyline since last year to become the winter eye-catcher. Laurels are invading a vista I expected to see clear; a holly clearly dominates a group where it was balanced in autumn by deciduous domes; a live oak, twice as big, it seems, as it was last winter, hogs the scene completely on a bank dedicated in theory to a group of pines.
The garden macrocosm has changed: I need a ladder to recuperate a glimpse of church tower that focussed one view I enjoy. But so has the microcosm; I hadn’t noticed how periwinkle has been smothering a bed until a veil of leaves fell, revealing the spread of the dark stain on the ground.
Nobody talks about Sarcococca in summer. Just to say that tells you why: what a name (it is Greek for ‘fleshy berry’). Christmas box sounds friendlier, and gives a good idea of a plant you only see in long-established gardens, or the gardens of serious grown-ups. It is also a plant you didn’t notice until autumn, when its polished leaves strike you as particularly well-designed; miniature Porsche bodies, almost. A happy clump gives satisfaction out of proportion to its size, and sweet scent on damp or frosty air.
Over the years we have collected the set, as it were: from the snail-slow S. humilis to the perky slender-leaved S. hookeriana var. digyna and one that Roy Lancaster strongly recommends: S. ruscifolia ‘Dragon Gate’. It’s no good drumming your fingers for them to reveal their qualities. Their miniature charms and positively stately pace are their counter-intuitive attractions.
Unlike history, the garden slows down progressively, from the frantic presto of spring to the andante of autumn and the larghissimo of winter. Then, of course, da capo.