Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Winter Garden


A keen garden lover is happy to wander round the garden enjoying the colour of flowers and foliage, scents, texture and shapes of attractive plants at any time of year. The growing season produces a wealth of interest, but it is a bonus when some winter beauty can be enjoyed to brighten up the long cold dormant season. There is quite a wide variety of plants suitable for creating a winter border that will provide a splash of colour on any bright cold day.
Many, e.g. dogwoods, are enhanced with a bit of frost on them or emerging from a blanket of pure white pristine snow.
Information on suitable plants is available in numerous gardening books and magazines or on the internet through Google, or visit your local garden centre or plant nursery.
When the summer flowers fade, the last roses get frosted and the few remaining leaves with autumn colour fall off, this is the moment the winter garden starts its display which continues through 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 and trees, flowering shrubs, scented shrubs, climbers and some early flowering bulbs.
Choose a spot that will catch the winter sun and make sure it is well drained, but not dry. Cultivate the soil, adding plenty of garden compost or other organic material to improve the soil structure and add humus. My winter garden is based on heathers, coloured stemmed trees and shrubs, winter flowering shrubs and climbers and a carpet of bulbs in layers to add and extend the interest well beyond the winter. Once you establish drifts of bulbs, soil cultivations can be very tricky if damage to bulbs is to be avoided therefore it is wise to top dress with a mulch of well rotted garden compost in early winter after clearing up old leaves and weeding, but before any bulbs begin to grow. I also top dress with compost from old tomato growbags, compost from hanging baskets, tubs, pots or seed trays. These all add humus which not only improves the soil but also darkens it which helps to show off the bright colours of shrubs, then flowering bulbs.
Always check your old compost for any vine weevil larvae which often hibernate in pots but are very easy to spot as they are white with a brown head and clean.

It is far better to bring all the plants with winter interest together to create a display with impact and if possible site the border against a dark fence, wall or evergreen hedge.

The winter season

In past years the winter garden began its season in late autumn as other plants in 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, though not this year. The autumn leaf fall now happens in early winter and yellow Winter Jasmine begins to flower in October. It makes 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.

The show begins when the tree and shrubs lose their leaves to reveal the brilliant red  stems of Cornus sibirica Westonbirt and Mid-winter Fire, bright green stems of Kerria japonica and Leycesteria Formosa and the dazzling orange stemmed willow, Salix britzensis emerging from the ground cover of the black grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens. This grass is quite black forming dense ground hugging clumps that give a perfect background to both the bright stems and also 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 heart and soul on a cold winter’s day so it has been relegated to the shade border.
If you wish to try some grey stems look out a Rubus giraldianus, but treat it carefully as the vicious thorns make it perfect for any vandal prone areas. It is very popular with local authorities for barrier planting to stop people taking shortcuts over roads. Another excellent tall shrub is the violet willow, Salix daphnoides which has a beautiful grey bloom on its stems.

Specimen trees

As well as shrubs with coloured stems the heather garden is often at its best in winter. It can be enhanced with a magnificent specimen birch tree Betula jaquemontia with pure white bark in a central position 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 must include drifts of winter flowering Erica carnea Springwood White and Springwood Pink.
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.
Climbing plants and wall trained shrubs can be grown on all fences and walls to add beauty, colour, scent and a dark background. The winter flowering yellow Jasminum nudiflorum is superb at this time of year.

Winter scent

For a strong scent try the winter flowering Viburnum fragrans or the variety V. bodnantense Dawn, but for a subtle perfume the yellow flowers of the Chinese Witch Hazel, Hamamelis mollis are very welcome. The latter also has excellent autumn colour.

Spring arrives in February

The winter garden would be incomplete without a heavy planting of spring flowering bulbs drifted in amongst the shrubs. 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.
Snowdrops and dogwood make an excellent combination as does the black grass with either.


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 of yellow flowers 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 just above ground level to encourage the growth of strong young stems that have the brightest colouring. Assist this growth with a light dressing of nitrogenous fertilizer, 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.
Although the coloured stems have been pruned and the early spring bulbs are finished, it is still possible to use this border for a further show of summer flowering scented lilies. These are quite tall and grow through the shrubs into the light to flower. All these plants seem to work well together without any overcrowding.
The show goes on.


1 comment:

  1. The snow covered your garden at all.

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