Once winter takes hold, the value of planting for all-year interest pays absolute dividends, lifting our spirits on the dullest of days. In this post I cover plants that you can buy and put in right now to cheer up your own garden, as well as some gorgeous gardens to visit for inspiration.
Look for fabulous plants to brighten the darkest months
By the middle of winter, gardens are pretty much reduced to their ‘bare bones’ : perennials have died back, all but the most structural of grasses are weather-beaten and in need of a haircut, and deciduous trees, shrubs and bushes have long since dropped their leaves. Now the true value of winter performers comes to the fore: step forward the evergreens with lustrous foliage; shrubs with vivid and glowing stems; and the few shrubs that brave the cold and bloom during the most inhospitable weather of the year. During winter it’s inevitable that we spend a lot of time inside looking out, so these are the key viewpoints to identify first of all for winter planting.
Identify the key viewpoints that you see from indoors
If you’re planning a border or indeed a whole garden, from scratch, start with the garden’s largest inhabitants – trees. Those with attractive bark are amongst my top recommendations as they are fantastic for all-year interest, not just for winter. Birches look amazing when lit by the low rays of winter sun and there is far more variety than just white – which of course looks great, but there’s many shades of cream, pink, even orange and brown, often with bark that peels in big strips and looks incredible when backlit by the sun. Although tall-growing, birches have immense garden value as they only cast a light, dappled shade, so a good range of plants can still be grown beneath. (Contrast this to dense-foliaged trees like Norway maple or beech, where it’s so dark beneath that only a very select band of tough plants will grow).
Shrubs are the mainstay of gardens and, when it comes to evergreens, there’s no shortage of choice. The secret of success is to get the balance right: too many, and the effect is of a dull, unchanging Victorian shrubbery, while too few give little winter interest. An excellent rule of thumb is for evergreens to make up no more than a third of all the shrubs in a garden. Golden-leaved evergreens like Aucuba, Choisya and Euonymus give a splash of sunshine whatever the weather, but are best used only in moderation or you can end up with an over-artificial look. When in doubt, go for green, with leaves of different shapes and sizes for variety, from tiny-leaved Box to large, shiny-leaved castor oil plant (Fatsia) and bold sword-shaped New Zealand flax (Phormium).
Coloured stems are another way to bring glowing colour to the winter garden. For the best and brightest stem colour, shrubs like dogwood (Cornus) and willow (Salix alba varieties such as vitellina) need to be hard pruned around March time, taking out about a third of the stems near to the ground. By contrast, my favourite Acer, the aptly-named coral-bark maple ‘Sango-Kaku’ needs no pruning at all, just patience while it slowly achieves a good size – perfect for small gardens, by the way.
Flowering shrubs are shining gems in the winter garden and I always admire their resilience at being able to bloom even through frost and snow. Some bear flowers on leafless branches: the spidery yellows and oranges of witch hazel (Hamamelis), several Viburnum species, and the winter-flowering shrubby honeysuckles (Lonicera) that have an exquisite scent too. Even if the weather is too bad to enjoy them at close quarters outside, just a few sprigs picked for a vase will scent a whole room. Evergreens that bloom too are, of course, top value plants as they look good all the year round. Daphnes are wonderfully fragrant, pretty, and deserving of their high price tags, while accommodating little sweet box (Sarcoccocca) is less showy but also highly scented.
Wrap up warm and go garden visiting in search of inspiration
Going garden visiting is a great way to find inspiration on what to plant. Over the last couple of months I’ve visited the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) gardens at Rosemoor in North Devon and Cotehele (National Trust) in Cornwall which both have a splendid array of trees, shrubs and perennials as well as gorgeous displays of early bulbs, and Stone Lane Gardens near Chagford which is world-famous for its woodland garden collection of beautiful birch trees. All highly recommended as a wonderful way to spend a bright winter’s day.