Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Winter Garden

Plan a garden for colour all year round

A garden can have year round interest with the availability of such a wide range of plants to choose from at local garden centres, or by mail order from a host of excellent gardening magazines.
It is very easy to create interest from spring to autumn, but winter can also have its charm to be enjoyed through the window of a warm home, or to wander round the garden on those cold but pleasant sunny winter days.

The Winter Garden
When the summer flowers fade, the last roses get frosted and the few remaining leaves with autumn colour fall off, now is the moment the winter garden gets some attention. An attractive winter garden full of colour is much appreciated during the long winter months of cold weather and short days.

Plan the garden
It is a useful exercise to make a list of all the different types of plants you wish to grow, pondering through gardening books, visiting garden centres, botanical gardens or National Trust gardens of stately homes or look through gardening magazines to find out what can be grown successfully in your own area.
Consider ground cover including heathers, coloured stemmed shrubs, flowering shrubs, scented shrubs, climbers and for late winter plant some early flowering bulbs.

The winter season
In past years the winter garden began its season in late autumn as other parts of the garden were going into dormancy. The recent climatic changes brought about by global warming effects have given rise to an extended season for many plants. We now get roses and geraniums up to December. The autumn leaf fall now happens in early winter and yellow Jasmine can easily provide a beautiful Christmas table decoration combined with red carnation (purchased.)
Spring flowering bulbs no longer wait for spring but are ready to put on a show from January onwards. These really are a bonus for the winter garden.
A Scottish garden
My winter garden in sunny Dundee has only a few square metres combining ground cover plants, shrubs with coloured stems, climbers at the back, a specimen tree and all underplanted with bulbs.
The show begins when the tree and shrubs lose their leaves to reveal the brilliantly coloured stems of Cornus sibirica Westonbirt and Mid-winter Fire, Kerria japonica, Leycesteria Formosa and the dazzling orange stemmed willow, Salix britzensis emerging from the ground cover of the black grass, Ophiopogon nigricans. This grass is quite black forming dense ground hugging clumps that give a perfect background to a drift of snowdrops. Now white on black; that’s different.
I did have a black stemmed Cornus kesselringii but I am afraid it was a curiosity, not quite a thing of beauty to warm the soul on a cold winter’s day so it has been relegated to the shade border.
The coloured stem border leads into the heather garden where a magnificent specimen birch tree Betula jaquemontia with pure white bark takes a central positio
n within a drift of gold and crimson heather, Calluna vulgaris Beoley Gold and Beoley Crimson. All of these plants are enhanced with the first cold evenings and a bit of frost. The heather garden extends with drifts of a wide range of Calluna and Erica including the winter flowering Erica carnea Springwood white and Springwood Pink.
If there was more room I would include a Rubus cockburnianus, the grey stemmed bramble. This is a lovely grey plant but has vicious thorns.
For those in a more frivolous mood in need of the perfect small specimen tree, I recommend the Japanese maple Acer palmatum Sangokaku and although it is not cheap, it will not disappoint. After the vivid colour of the autumn leaves fall off the bright wine red stems are brilliant in sunshine.
It is important to create a dark background to enhance this border, so consider the fence colour, or use evergreens or climbers on a fence or wall. Climbing plants and wall trained shrubs can be grown on all fences and walls to add beauty, (climbing roses), provide scent, (honeysuckle), give protection, (pyracantha), or provide a fruit crop (figs, vines, or peaches). The winter flowering yellow Jasminum nudiflorum is superb at this time of year.
Spring arrives in February
The winter garden would be incomplete without a heavy planting of spring flowering bulbs drifted in amongst the low ground cover. It is quite feasible to have successional plantings each at their own depth giving a long display of flowers right out of winter and into summer.
The show starts in February when the Aconites, Snowdrops and Hellebore all compete with each other to see who can flower first, followed by the Crocus species. The large Crocus hybrids flower a week or so later, but what a fantastic display they make. Then immediately behind them is the polyanthus a couple of months early, but very welcome.

It is important that the border is kept weed free especially in autumn and top dressed with a mulch of well rotted garden compost. This humus helps to feed the soil, as well as creating a clean darker surface which helps to show off the coloured stems and spring flowers at their best.
In March there is always the occasional warm spring day that brings out the best from the flowering bulbs, and then we know that winter is past. Large drifts of brilliant crocus give way to the first early Narcissi and daffodils. February Gold usually leads this group, though in Scotland more often in March. Above the daffodils the Kerria japonica now puts on its show for a few weeks, before the first of the tulips underplanted amongst the cornus push up and open into the sun.
At the end of March the buds on the shrubs will start to grow, so now is the time to prune them back to a stool to encourage the growth of strong young stems that have the brightest colouring. Assist this growth with a dressing of nitrogenous fertiliser, but only after the flowering bulbs have finished. However I do not prune back the Kerria or Leycesteria. These get a light pruning after flowering by removing some older shoots back to decent fresh young growth.
The winter season ends, but the display continues.
Although the coloured stems have been pruned and the early spring bulbs are finished, I have also planted drifts of tulips which can now add interest to the border in May then these are followed by my scented lilies in mid summer. All these plants seem to work well together without any overcrowding
The show goes on.

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