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Winter inspiration for your garden

Mercifully, several plants are in bloom in mid to late winter, and add colour to what can be a very dreary season. Strategically collecting a few together will create a display to admire and give us an early spring to boot!

Early bloomers
Lift your spirits by adding a winter border to the garden.

  • Don't waste the borders closest to the house, as many winter bloomers are woodlanders. Instead, maximise the space beneath deciduous trees. These areas are in shade throughout the summer, but bare branches at this time of year allow the winter sun to shine through to ground level.
  • Lift the mood with lush and colourful hellebores (Helleborus atrorubens and H. orientalis offer the most colourful tones) mingling at ground level with swathes of early-flowering bulbs. Bulbs to choose from include lemon-yellow Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), Cyclamen coum, ‘February Gold' daffodils, the upturned blooms of erythronium (‘Pagoda' and ‘White Beauty' are wonderful), Crocus tommasinianus, blue scilla and, of course, great clumps of snowdrops. Galanthus elwesii produces a delicate honey perfume and is perfectly suited to the woodland edge. A mix of several early bulbs will create a jostling mass of colour.
  • Areas closer to the house can be jazzed up with Iris reticulata or heathers, such as Erica carnea ‘Winter Beauty'. Both grow well in large, deep pots, lifting drab areas of the garden with a riot of colour.
  • Wall-trained plants are a good use of space - I grow Chaenomeles speciosa on a front wall where I can appreciate its early blooms.

Tip: Cut back the old foliage of hellebores to really show off their winter blooms.

Tips for winter inspiration

  • Garden centres are sure to provide inspiration at this time of year. Shop for winter shrubs now while they're in full bloom - they can be planted without worry.
  •  Start spring early by cutting branches plump with flower buds from spring-flowering shrubs. Make vertical slits in the stems then place them in a vase of tepid water, adding a teaspoon each of sugar and white vinegar to preserve the flowers. In the warmth of your home, buds will soon begin to burst.
  • To get the best transplanting results, divide overcrowded clumps of snowdrops and crocuses when the flowers are fading. 
  • Sculptures, statues, benches and urns will all add interest to your winter garden.
  • Winter shows the bones of a garden, spurring you to look at the overall design. If you need to replace fencing, or build new paths or a new terrace, do it now when plants will suffer the least damage.
  • It's the time of year for willow weaving. Order willow now to build living structures such as fences, seats, trellising and playhouses.

7 Non-flowering bright ideas
Winter interest doesn't have to mean blooms! There are lots of plants that hold their own through the winter months without a flower in sight.

1 Punctuate winter borders, and add interest to summer borders, with colourful cornus and willow. Upright branches in tones of yellow, orange and red create drama (cut back hard in spring to guarantee colour for next winter).

2 The striped bark of the snake bark maples Acer capillipes, A. davidii and A. pensylvanicum is striking and unusual if you have the room. To complement winter white, the crisp white stems of Rubus cockburnianus and Betula utilis var. jacquemontii look otherworldly, particularly when planted against evergreen shrubs or trees.

3 Evergreen box, yew and holly have long been valued for their year-round cloaks of green, particularly when trained as balls, spirals and other topiary shapes.

4 If you're looking for something more adventurous, try architectural, evergreen Phormium in your border, available in colours ranging from tones of deep green through orange, apricot and red.

5 Evergreen bamboos such as Phyllostachys nigra have colour in both their stems and foliage, with the added attraction of movement when they rustle in a winter wind. And evergreen grasses create textural interest; Stipa arundinacea, Stipa gigantea and Carex testacea look stunning glistening in frost.  

6 If not feasted upon by birds, berries are the colourful fruit of the garden's winter display. Pyracantha is particularly intense, jazzing up fences and walls. Try ‘Orange Glow' for maximum effect.

7 The berries on holly contrast well against glossy leaves. Displayed on bare stems, Cotoneaster horizontalis allows its fruit centre stage, once stripped of its leaves. But my favourite berrying beauty has to be the almost gaudy, fluorescent violet berries upon naked Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion'.

Tip: Take cuttings of cornus and plant short lengths outside. Leave for 12 months and you'll have lots of new plants for free.

Heaven scent

Many winter-flowering shrubs have the added bonus of precious perfume

  • Plant Christmas Box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna) now to enjoy it for years to come - it remains low-growing so is the perfect path-side perfume.
  •  Rather larger Mahonia japonica chooses winter to produce its sulphur-yellow flowers, smelling not unlike lily-of-the-valley.
  • Of a similar size, Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn' produces pink globes of bloom with a sophisticated fragrance.
  • Daphnes are sublime, and if you've space, squeeze vigorous Daphne bholua into a border, where perfumed pink blooms begin in January and last through until March.
  • Witch hazels are legendary for their spidery flowers produced on bare branches. But choose carefully, for not all are grown for their perfume. Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida' is a firm favourite, thanks to its spicy perfume, and is also valued for its golden foliage.
  • Similar in appearance but with waxier blooms, Chimonanthus praecox makes an unusual alterative. Give them both lots of room to be fully appreciated.
  • Lesser-known and underrated Edgeworthia chrysantha produces yellow globes of flower, fading to cream over the long winter period. Lonicera x purpusii blooms for roughly two months with delicious scented effect.


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