Jo Arnell highlights the seasonal gems primed to light up your garden
Not much is actively growing out in the garden – it is the dormant season and our plants are gently ticking over, preparing themselves for the year ahead, or if they are more tender, desperately trying to survive the cold of a British winter. We can help the less hardy with mulch and fleece – and sometimes this is enough, depending on how far below zero the temperature goes…
Frost may spell trouble for some, but it can look very pretty – a glittery dusting of white enhancing structures and evergreen shapes. If your garden is looking far from magical right now, it might be time to add (when the soil is more receptive) some plants that will manage the winter weather and stay looking good through the bleak weeks.
It is hard to beat the quiet handsomeness of a well-shaped evergreen. Some are just made that way, growing neat and well-formed without any interference, others (a bit like some of us) can be made to be pretty with a little tweaking and pruning.
Taken to extremes, pruning evergreens turns into an art form and plants become living sculptures. Small leaved shrubs like yew, pittosporum, euonymus, famously box (but off the menu in some gardens for now due to the ravaging effects of the box moth caterpillar) can be clipped into low hedges, balls, spirals and pyramids. In fact yew can be trained into any shape you like, but it takes patience, practise and a bit of vision to create them. We might aim for a perfect peacock, but end up with a squiffy squirrel.
Hardy evergreen shrubs will provide structure and colour all year, as a foil or backdrop to the summer plants, but coming into the foreground in winter. Frost may kill the more tender plants, but it positively enhances the look of many evergreens; Viburnum tinus and its shorter, bigger leaved relation Viburnum davidii, have dark green glossy leaves; Osmanthus has leaves a little like box, but is faster growing and has the added bonus of scented spring blossom; stalwart Elaeagnus is tough as old boots and puts up with hard frost – and hard pruning. All of these will look good through the winter.
So it’s not actual sun, but a burst of cheery yellow from a plant in the depths of winter is sometimes as close as we get. Mahonia is a favourite for this – a striking evergreen with aggressive looking serrated foliage and spectacular, highly scented yellow flowers – like spiky bursts of sunshine.
Acacia dealbata (mimosa) is bigger, more of a tree, and needs a sheltered site, but it is a lovely thing to grow if you can, and will shine out like a beacon in late winter, covered in fluffy chick yellow, scented blossom.
There is a smallish early narcissi that naturalises well and can also be grown in pots and borders, as it doesn’t have the enormous leaves of some daffodils that flop about for weeks once the flowers are over. It is called ‘February Gold’, but can often be seen earlier than that, its cheery heads nodding in the chilly breeze.
Winter flowering plants rely on scent to attract pollinators. The few tough little insects that eke it out through the winter are drawn in by the scent of the flowers, rather than the colour, so the plants often have tiny, insignificant flowers. In fact you may not notice them at all, until you get within a few metres and are hit by their fragrance – and even then it can be hard to know where the scent is coming from. Sarcococca confusa (Christmas box) is a small, low growing evergreen, often overlooked, but it pumps out an almost overwhelming perfume. Two larger shrubs that are straggly nothings in summer, but hard to be without at this time of the year, are the wintersweet – Chimonanthes praecox and Lonicera ‘Winter Beauty’, a winter flowering honeysuckle. Plant them where they can fade into the background once the flowers are over, but near enough for you to catch the fragrance.
Many of these late winter and early spring performers are suitable for growing in containers too, in fact something like a camellia may even prefer it, as these need acid soil. The great thing about a plant in a pot is that it can be moved away from centre stage once it’s done its thing – if you can move it, that is.
The young stems of dogwoods (Cornus) will provide brilliant winter colour, especially if you are able to plant several together. Dogwoods will grow in most soil conditions, and they actually quite like damp or heavy soils. They don’t mind shady conditions, but their stem colour shows up best in full sun. They will send out suckers, so plant them where they have room to spread. The stems also look good cut and poked into winter containers, bringing height and structure – they may even take root.
For the best stem colour, Dogwoods should be cut back hard in spring to encourage the growth of new young stems which have the strongest colour. Some will cope with hard pruning better than others – generally the more vigorous the growth, the harder you can cut back. After pruning, mulch around the roots with compost or other well-rotted organic material, but not right up to the stems, as this could cause them to rot. Mulching will feed and condition the soil – and also help retain moisture.
Dogwoods won’t get too tall, because they are regularly pruned to the base. Some of the best for stem colour are: Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, which has bright red new growth, while the aptly named C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ has young stems that literally look as if they’re on fire – in shades of yellow/orange tinged with red. Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’ has yellow-green stems; Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ has young growth of a deep purple colour.
Willows can (literally) run about in the garden, so should be carefully positioned, as they can be invasive and hard to remove. They are fast growing and some have brightly coloured stems to rival the dogwoods. Salix ‘Britzensis’ is one of the best for stem colour, but will need regular pruning. Just like Cornus, willows are best grown near water or in boggy places.
Bare stems and branches are companionably set off with contrasting carpets of snowdrops – the earliest of the bulbs to flower. These tough little plants will push up through snow (hence the name) and frozen ground and naturalise quickly in places where not much else dares to grow – in the shade and among the roots of trees. Slightly later, but still early, Cyclamen coum, Anemone blanda, and bulbs like winter aconite and crocus will emerge. These little treasures are best seen in massed throngs beneath the trees, where they make the most of the light before the dense canopy of leaves closes in on them.
Hellebores are good and hardy, often flowering where not much else will and are a great asset in the garden at this time of the year. Helleborus niger (the Christmas rose) flowers in winter, these are usually white, but Helleborus orientalis cultivars flower later, most often in pink shades from pale to the darkest burgundy.
Low growing evergreens look good next to bare stems, even low growing dwarf conifers, or hardy ferns such as Polystichums will work well and bring all year foliage interest.
Structure is vital in the garden, perhaps even more so in winter when we can’t distract ourselves with flowers and foliage. We need architecture, focal points and framework plants. Right now evergreens, or those with elegant skeletons, striking bark, or uplifting fragrance – plants that might be overlooked during the rest of the year, shine out beautifully.
Jo’s gardening courses starting in spring are now booking 07923 969634 hornbrookmanor.co.uk
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