Winter Garden Visits

February can be a frustrating month for gardeners. We’re usually champing at the bit eager to get sowing and planting, but often the temperature and light levels thwart our best intentions. The greenhouse is often a place of refuge at these times, allowing for a good potter about even on the dullest and chilliest of days.

I’ve often found visiting a garden in winter is a great alternative and can be unexpectedly rewarding. There are a surprising number of them open at this time of year, so there is bound to be one close to you. Some of them are noted for their winter gardens, such as the Sir Harold Hillier Garden in Hampshire, Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire and Dunham Massey in Cheshire – the latter boasts Britain’s largest winter garden. I come home from these visits brimming with ideas for how I can make my own garden sparkle

The very cold weather we’ve experienced recently needn’t bring these visits to a halt. The key is to find one suitable for a bracing walk, with a large greenhouse or conservatory to retreat to when the chill begins to bite. A welcoming cafe also helps, but that needs a separate post all to itself.

One of my favourites is RHS Harlow Carr in Harrogate, which specialises in growing the tougher plants that thrive in northern gardens. Gardeners with shade will find plenty of inspiration here too. It also has the largest Alpine House I’ve ever seen, where many of these delicate plants can be viewed without the need for bending down to peer at them. The Alpine House is a great refuge on a winter’s day as is their branch of the world famous Betty’s cafe! School gardeners also get to enjoy the 40 foot bespoke teaching greenhouse provided by Gabriel Ash and they’ve also supplied the shed to store the tools.

Botanic Gardens are a worthwhile destination as they have large glasshouses in which to retreat. When I was growing up, Birmingham’s bulbous glasshouses often beckoned me in, where I was able to explore plants from 4 different climates. If you go there, be sure to stop by at the aviary and have a chat with Jenny, the sulphur-crested cockatoo. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew holds an annual orchid festival in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. This year’s has just started and is called ‘Alluring Orchids – a Tropical Extravaganza’, which says it all really.

One of the more unusual places to visit is the Ninfarium at Aberglasney in West Wales. I was there a couple of weeks ago and it was a marvellous discovery. It was created in 2005 within the ruined central rooms and courtyard of Aberglasney’s mansion. It’s named after the famous gardens at Ninfa in Italy, where the plants reside within the ruins of a medieval village. The Ninfarium has a huge glass atrium which houses warm temperate and sub-tropical plants. The Head Gardener told me it’s not heated; the mansion’s thick walls and glass overhead are sufficient to retain the heat needed for these plants to thrive. It still had that characteristic warm smell encountered in glasshouses, even on the chilly February day I was there.

This is just a small selection of gardens to enjoy at this time of the year. If your favourite is missing, do tell me about it in the Comments below.

Michelle Chapman is a gardener, freelance writer and garden blogger based in Chippenham, Wiltshire. She is the author of the award winning blog, Veg Plotting, where she writes about her small town garden, seasonal food and anything else which strikes her whilst up at her allotment. Her blog can be found at