Make the most of cold-weather gardening
Do you shut up shop in the garden from October to March? If you do, you’re missing the joy of growing some great winter plants that will warm the coldest of hearts (and days).
Here are some of my favourites. I don’t have space to grow them all, but one great place to see a sublime example of winter planting is RHS Harlow Carr, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Look for the best autumn garden colours here.
When choosing winter plants, positioning is everything. Plant them where you can see and smell them – near doorways, main footpaths and anywhere you sit inside and overlook the garden. Think laterally – winter interest plants are grown not just for flowers, but for berries, bark and shape.
When gardening in winter, it really helps to thickly mulch bare soil – it shows off the plants, insulates them against extreme cold and suppresses weeds.
Winter plants – bulbs
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis): It only opens its yellow globular flowers in warm sunshine. Flowers February-March. Height 6cm.
Snowdrop (Galanthus): Much-loved snowdrops come in many shapes and sizes, from the single G. nivalis to extravagant doubles like G. nivalis f. pleniflorus Flore Pleno. Flowers January-March. Height 15-30cm.
Crocus: Much overlooked, these tiny corms often flower in the snow, setting off their yellow, purple and white hues. Flowers February-March. Height 5-10cm.
Iris reticulata: Katharine Hodgkin is very popular, a mixture of yellow, pale blue and purple streaks with sea-green veining and markings. Flowers February-March. Height 15cm.
Holly, ivy, stems, bark and conifers
Evergreen plants will provide structure during the colder months and a backdrop for other plants. Thankfully, shrubs seem to be back in fashion – or at least heading in the right direction.
Winter plants – Herbaceous perennials
Evergreen ferns: Great to complement other plants. Good varieties are Polystichum polyblepharum; Dryopteris wallichiana; Polystichum tsussimense; Asplenium scolopendrium Crispum Moly; Blechnum spicant.
Hellebores (Helleborus nigra, H. x ericsmithii, H. orientalis): The white blooms of the Christmas rose (H. nigra) contrast with its deep green foliage. Be warned – it never flowers at Christmas! H. x ericsmithii has silvery, serrated foliage and white flowers begin in midwinter, fading to rose pink. The Lenten rose (H. orientalis) blooms in shades of purple and white, often with burgundy speckles inside. Flowers January-April. Height 30cm.
Elephant’s ears (Bergenia): Leathery, big leaves colour up in the cold, followed by pink or white flowers in spring. Good varieties are Admiral and Baby Doll. Flowers January-April. Height 20-40cm.
Lords and ladies (Arum italicum marmoratum): Stunning white veined arrow-shaped leaves emerge in September-October, dying down in late spring. White spathes are followed by a spike of poisonous red berries in autumn. Height 30cm.
Violets (Viola): Ideal for informal bedding and a prolific self-seeder. Will flower throughout winter and spring if conditions are favourable. Height 20cm.
Primrose, Polyanthus (Primula): Hundreds of varieties, from simple native yellow primrose (P. vulgaris) to vivid bedding Polyanthus such as Fire Dragon. Flowers February onwards. Height 15-30cm.
Black mondo Nigrescens (Ophiopogon planiscapus): Black, grass-like plant that performs well with spring bulbs – or against the snow. Height 8cm.
Oregon grape (Mahonia × media Charity, Winter Sun or Soft Caress): Yellow spikes of flowers, evergreen holly-like leaves – dwarf Soft Caress (height 1m) has spine-free leaves. Lily-of-the-valley fragrance. Flowers November-March. Height 3-4.5m.
Dogwoods (Cornus): Grown for their winter stem colour, Midwinter Fire (C. sanguinea) has orange, pink and red branches. Other colours are C. alba Sibirica, (red); C. sanguinea Winter Beauty (orange-red); C. stolonifera Flaviramea (acid green/yellow); C. alba Kesselringii (dark purple/almost black), with purple-green foliage. I have C. alba Aurea (red stems, golden foliage); C. serica White Gold (white variegated foliage, yellow in autumn, stems yellow) and C. alba Spaethii (golden variegated leaves, red autumn foliage, red stems). Height approx 1.5m-2.5m, prune hard in spring.
Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata): Sundance is a rounded dense shrub, evergreen with bright yellow-green glossy leaves. Scented white star-shaped flowers in clusters in late spring. Aromatic leaves. Height up to 2.5m.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri Profusion): A deciduous shrub with purplish leaves when young, turning rosy-pink in autumn. Berries 4mm, violet-purple, in compact clusters. There is also a white version. Height 3m.
Dawn viburnum (Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn): Dawn is a large deciduous shrub with clusters of scented, light pink and white flowers opening from autumn to spring, from red buds. Height up to 2.5m.
Willow (Salix): Pollarded as shrubs for colourful stems. Ideal for wet areas. S. alba Britzensis produces bright orange rods; the violet willow, S. daphnoides, has stems coated with a grey-white bloom. In February, the wands produce silvery ‘pussy willow’ catkins. Other good willows are S. phylicifolia (brownish-purple stems); S. alba vitellina (golden yellow); S. alba Yelverton; S. alba var. vitellina yellow/orange stems); S. gracilistyla Melanostachys (black catkins and brick-red anthers).
Sweet box (Sarcococca confusa): A vanilla-scented evergreen shrub with white flowers and lustrous, dark green leaves. Flowers December-March. Height 2m.
Winter daphne (Daphne odora): Fragrant pink or white winter flowers. Variegated daphne (D. odora Aureo-Marginata) lights up the winter garden with its green and white foliage. Flowers December-March. Height 1.5m.
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spire): Produces a winter framework of silver-white stems. Height 1m.
Euphorbia (E. x martinii Ascot Rainbow): Rosettes of weather-resistant, grey-green lance-shaped leaves edged in yellow. In winter, the foliage becomes flushed with shades of red, pink, and orange. Height 40cm. E. characias subsp. wulfenii provides great structure with its grey-green whorls of leaves, providing it’s not too wet – plant with grit and use a gravel mulch. Height 1m.
Skimmia Kew Green, Rubella, Magic Marlot (S. x confusa): Compact mounds of evergreen foliage supporting conical heads of ivory-white buds (Kew Green); Rubella has red buds all winter; Magic Marlot has variegated leaves. Height 1.5m.
Winter plants – trees
Himalayan birch Grayswood Ghost (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii): Striking, silk-textured, white bark and black twigs. Yellow leaves in autumn. Height 18m.
Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum sango-kaku): Vivid red bark. Golden-green leaves in summer which turn dramatic shades of apricot-yellow in autumn. Height up to 6m.
Paperbark maple (Acer griseum): Gorgeous, peeling cinnamon-coloured bark and fiery red and orange autumn colours. Slow growing. Height after 10 years 3m.
Prunus serrula (Tibetan cherry): P. serrula is deciduous, the trunk with shining coppery-brown young bark. Narrow leaves turn yellow in autumn. Flowers 2cm in width, white, in small clusters. Height 8-12m.
Witch hazel Pallida (Hamamelis x intermedia): Vase-shaped winter blooming tree. Spidery yellow flowers are scented. Flowers January-February. Height 3m.
Crepe myrtle (Langerstromea indica): Multi-coloured peeling bark, showy summer flowers. Height 4-8m.
Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo): A multi-trunked evergreen, with red berries that take about a year to ripen. Ornamental bark. Height 6m.
Cotoneaster (Hybridus pendulus): Weeping semi-evergreen tree, laden with berries. Needs good drainage. Height 3m.
Blue gum (Eucalyptus gunnii): Hardy down to -10C. Evergreen – juvenile leaves are rounded and glaucous (bluish-green or white bloom). Adult leaves are elliptic to lance-shaped, grey-green. Cut back hard for bluest young foliage; allow to mature as a tree for ornamental bark, whitish-green with pink- or orange-flushed patches. Height up to 25m as a tree; can be pruned successfully.
Winter plants updated September 2022