Colour in the Winter Garden

January and February are the most challenging months in the garden and are the real test of a good gardener. Really, with a bit of money thrown at it, anyone’s garden can have a lively show in summer, but winter is where forward thinking and a little thought ensure that the winter garden need not be bereft of colour and interest. First published in 1957, Graham Stuart Thomas’s Colour in the Winter Garden is a classic of garden literature and still the greatest authority on creating year round interest in the garden and if you find a copy in your local library I urge you to borrow it. The winter garden is not flash or brash, rather it is subtle, relying on foliage, bark and gentle modest flowers to bring it to life. Here are some lists of plants to get you started:

Foliage:

Bergenia purpurascens: The large, waxy leaves of this great ground-cover plant turn deeper and deeper red the colder it gets.

Elaeagnus pungens ‘Dicksonii’: This evergreen shrub has lovely elliptical, shiny dark green leaves edged in yellow. Great for flower arrangements for the house.

Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’: really good ivy, with ripples of dark green and silver and edged with white.

Iris Foetidissima ‘Variegata’: the dreariest, stinkiest of plants has its Cinderella moment now, it has green and white variegated, strap shaped leaves and beautiful seed pods bursting with red fruits.

Arum italicum ‘Pictum’: lovely, crinkly spotted leaves make this arum a must for the winter garden, looks great with hellebores and snowdrops.

Mahonia ‘Heterophylla’: long spindly serrated leaves in russet brown – and the bonus of yellow flower spikes later on.

Berries:

For berries try holly,  Pyracantha, Skimmia japonica and any of the Cotoneasters.

Flowers:

Winter wouldn’t be complete without snowdrops, there are lots of varieties, singles, doubles, large and small flowered, from the thick grey leaved Elwesii species, to the pretty small naturalised Nivalis, all are hardy and with time and lots of lovely hummus will bulk up into significant clumps in a few years. Delicate, tiny little Cyclamen coum are perfect partners for snowdrops.

Flowering shrubs:

Most winter flowering shrubs have the most delicious scent too, the best being Viburnum x bodnantense and Daphne mezereum and Skimmia.

Bark and stems:

Don’t forget that bare branches and lovely barks come into their own now. All the dogwoods are stunning right now, from bright red to yellow the Cornus stems will lift any garden.

Acers are famous for their beautiful bark, particular good examples are davidii, laxiflorum and griseum. Also good are silver birch, the brightest whites are Betula albo-sinensis, Betula nigra and Betula pendula

Advertisements

A bit about soil

Winter is a great time to make plans for next year.  Take a good, long, hard look at the garden and be your harshest critic. Think what you have got wrong and be ruthless – whatever didn’t perform this year take out and either donate to a friend or pot up and give to your nearest charity shop or jumble sale. When plants don’t perform it means that they are unhappy in their surroundings. That is why it is important to read a bit about where they originate. A plant that is native to woodlands is not going to do well in a sandy garden on a windswept hillside by the sea, likewise a plant that is native to the Spanish mountains will not thrive if plant in a soggy bog garden.

There are a few key factors to think about when planting:

a. does the plant like sun or shade, or what is called dappled shade, i.e. gentle fluttering shadows cast by a leafy tree nearby.

b. if the plant is a shade-lover, what kind of shade does it like? There is an enormous difference between dry shade – which is very difficult and wet shade, which isn’t so bad.

c. does the plant like a sheltered position or is it happiest out in the open? Praire plants such as echinacea fall into the latter category.

d. what kind of soil does the plant like?

The last question is possibly the most important. If you haven’t figured out what kind of soil you have do so now. Broadly speaking you will have sandy, clay or loamy soil. Clay soil is heavy and frequently waterlogged. This soil benefits from the addition of gritty material to improve drainage but is generally very fertile. You will find keeping Mediterranean or alpine plants tricky. A sandy soil is very light and free-draining, so you will need to add lots of organic material to improve fertility, and you will be best going for drought tolerant and seaside plants. A loamy soil is the perfect growing medium, and if you have it, you are very lucky and grow almost anything. Soil Ph. is the other major consideration when planning what to plant in your garden.  You can buy Ph. soil testing kits in all garden centres and if you have an acid soil, lime lovers are out. Go instead for all those plants many of us would love to grow but can’t without a lot of faff and bother and importation of copious amounts of ericaceous compost – Rhododendrons, azaleas, blue hydrangea and go for a lovely Robinsonian wild garden look. If you have an alkaline or limey soil, it tends to be chalky and needs plants that will not just tolerate but thrive in such conditions. Limey soils are perfect for creating wildflower meadows and will take lots of drought tolerant species and are suitable for Mediterranean style gardens.  Last of all consider the shape of your beds and your hard landscaping. Avoid curvy beds and go instead for a sharp formal layout. You can soften hard edges with plant material, but a strong series of straight lines gives a better framework to work from.

Cyclamen, Arum italicum and Hellebore

Cyclamen, Arum italicum and Hellebore on humus rich soil in light shade