More than any other season, it’s winter that sorts true gardeners from mere dabblers. Putting on a good show when flowers are plentiful is easy, while the stripped back nature of winter soon exposes any weakness in design.
Planning your winter garden
Good structure is vital in winter, be it hard landscaping, hedges or evergreens. A good framework helps your garden stand out in low light and gives it shape when flowers and foliage are in short supply. Likewise, keeping paths clear and lawn edges neat gives an instant cared for look.
Choose where to place winter interest plants with precision – there’s no point in having something beautiful tucked away in the furthest corner of the garden when you can’t venture out because of the weather. Plan for views from your windows and place plants along paths and by the front door.
And think beyond floral displays – berries, foliage and bark are all big players in the winter scene.
Here are some of my favourite winter stars.
Plants with attractive bark and stems
There are many trees and shrubs that come into their own in winter with colourful bark or stems that light up the garden.
I wouldn’t be without Cornus, or dogwoods, in the garden, despite their ubiquity in supermarket car parks. Try Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ for bright red stems or C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ for a touch of lime green. My favourite is C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, which glows with flame colours of orange, yellow and red.
For a cooler palette, Ribes thibetanus has ghostly white stems while for something bigger, there’s little to beat silver birch.
Meanwhile, Acer griseum, the Chinese paperbark maple, has beautiful peeling copper bark that cries out to be touched.
Holly and winter go hand-in-hand and for very good reason. There’s a wide range of colour and form, while planting a male and female or self-pollinating variety gives you berries too.
Try Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ for leaves that are edged with cream, I. x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ for smooth green and gold leaves, or the hedgehog holly, I. aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’, which has extremely spiny foliage.
Euonymus fortunei is another plant that is often dismissed as municipal planting but it has the advantage of being tough and easy. I grow ‘Emerald Gaiety’ as a climber against a north-facing fence where the cool green and white leaves add year-round interest.
For something a bit smaller, the black grass-like Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is fabulous in containers or used to set off snowdrops.
Winter scented plants
Winter-scented plants often have insignificant flowers that can seem curiously at odds with the powerful fragrance they emit. Just make sure you plant them near a path or door to get the full impact, even on the most dismal of days.
My favourite is the winter honeysuckle. A nondescript shrub during summer, Lonicera fragrantissima more than earns its place in my garden in winter when the seemingly dead sticks sprout delicate white flowers that have a scent reminiscent of sherbet lemons. Absolutely knock-out.
Winter flowering plants
It’s possible to have flowers in the garden even in the middle of winter. Place them as colour accents in the borders and make sure there’s plenty to see from house windows.
Snowdrops are the obvious winter star, and for good reason. Choose carefully and you can have them in flower from September to March. Some change hands for hundreds of pounds per bulb. Easy to find, cheaper varieties like the common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis are just as good for adding some winter colour.
I wouldn’t be without Galanthus plicatus ‘Colossus’, which is reliably out in time for Christmas in my garden. Try G. elwesii ‘Mrs Macnamara’, which is an upright variety that shrugs off bad weather.
For vibrant colour, there’s little to rival Cyclamen coum with its pink flowers and beautifully marbled leaves. Partner them with snowdrops for a great display.
Hellebores are another must in the winter garden and the range is vast both in colour and shape. If you can, plant them in a spot where their intricately marked flowers can be seen easily.
When it comes to climbers, Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica has it all. It’s an evergreen with cut-leaf foliage that takes on a bronze tinge in cold weather, and dainty bell-like flowers of creamy-white. I grow it by the front door and it always makes me smile.
On a cold, grey day nothing lifts the spirits more than a welcoming garden and, with just a little thought, it’s possible to have one that still sparkles in the depths of winter.