Ordinarily, December isn’t the month you’d consider for visiting gardens, but the curious gardener welcomes any opportunity to observe new plants and planting schemes, even in winter. Earlier this month, Chris and I had the good fortune, along with dear friends Elin, Lasse, Nicole and Marc, to visit Copenhagen, and we had to make time for checking out the various public gardens.
There were many surprises: most importantly, the climate.This Scandinavian country has milder winters than we have here in Massachusetts, with the average low of 32F, or 0C. Yes, this means they can grow zone 8b plants like Melianthus. Summers are cool, with average temperatures of 67F (17C). Temperatures like this allow for plants which dislike summer heat, such as Mountain Ash (Sorbus) to flourish. Being at a higher latitude means that winter day length is short, and the reverse is true in summer. This has a big effect on plant growth, and there are far less dramatic day to day temperature fluctuations due to the maritime climate.
Danes are eager to be outdoors year round, no doubt to absorb as much natural light as possible, and design their gardens and landscapes to have strong winter interest. Evergreens, fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, grasses and seed heads add structure, color and form. One thing that struck us was the balance of formal and naturalistic plantings working together. Trees are routinely pollarded. Boxwood is commonly sheared into geometric forms. Clipped plantings are mixed with billowing shrubs, masses of grasses and herbaceous plants. While I would not feel at home in a rigidly formal garden this blending of treatments was fun and unexpected.
Garden structures and hardscape play an important role in Danish gardens. Planting beds tend to have squared off geometry rather than wavy lines. Sculpture plus a strong role. Outdoor seating its always considered, in both open or intimate settings. In this often overcast climate, brick buildings are often stained in shades of orange or gold to brighten the otherwise neutral grays and browns of winter.
Seasonal containers included plantings of Christmas Rose, (Helleborus niger), Heath, (Erica), Boxwood (Buxus) and Ivy (Hedera), accented with cut branches of Winterberry and Evergreens. Popup street vendors were selling potted winter interest plants including Skimmia, Hellebores, forced hyacinth, and Amaryllis along with branches and boughs of holly. A particularly magical floral shop Tage-Anderssen, had exquisite window displays, showcasing carefully crafted centerpieces using plant based materials.
Danish interior design is world renown, celebrating geometry and simple lines. But what this gardener couldn’t help to notice were the many plant based accents, in the form of cut flowers, forced bulbs or potted succulents, used to soften and add warmth to living spaces. During the short days of winter, the Danes decorate interior spaces with white lights and candles, a particularly “hygge” thing to do.
As we head approach the solstice, with weeks of colder weather before us, I’ll hold onto my Danish experience. Today I brought in cut branches of holly and boxwood, and will illuminate the darkness with candles and strings of lights, to drive the cold winter away.