WINTER INTEREST IN THE GARDEN

As the new year dawns, the winter interest plants in your garden take centre stage.   With the sparkle of Christmas is behind us and signs of spring still some way off, it’s easy to feel that the garden is a little flat.  This needn’t be the case –  when designing a scheme it is important to consider what the trees and shrubs will do for the garden in winter.

EVERGREEN SHRUBS

Ilex aquifolium Handsworth New Silver

Winter interest is definitely not all about evergreen shrubs, but they do have their role to play. Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’, Ilex aquilfolium ‘Handsworth New Silver’ and Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ , for example, all offer lovely foliage year round.  They can cope with improved clay and don’t need an acidic soil, so are suitable for planting into many situations, including new build gardens.

For smaller, cost effective evergreens, hebes are great and will thrive in a limey new build soil where other plants struggle.  Another small leaved evergreen of merit is Pittosporum tenuifolium, available in a range of cultivars with green, variegated and bronze leaves.  Both of these can be kept clipped into quite formal dome shapes which makes them useful when planted as a contrast to looser herbaceous plants and grasses.

For a touch of architectual impact, Phormium tenax is an eye catching plant whose strap-like foliage turns almost black in the colder weather. Low growing, ground cover shrubs such as Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ can give a splash of year round colour, with tinges of pink to the leaves in the cold weather that will help bring out the colours in your …

WINTER FLOWERING SHRUBS

Hamamelis Jelena

Garrya elliptica James Roof

Winter flowering shrubs are winter’s treasures.  When the days are at their bleakest, these flowers shine out like jewels.  They very often have the benefit of being  strongly scented too, which makes them all the more worthwhile. Evergreens include Sarcococca confusa which has lovely, glossy leaves and small, highly scented white flowers and is great near a path whilst Daphne odora aureomarginata has beautiful pink scented flowers and would work well in a pot near the door.

Large evergreens include Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ and Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’.  They lack scent but their stunning flowers/catkins earn them a place regardless, possibly to the rear of the garden in a position that can be viewed from the house.

Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn

 

Some of winter’s most stunning flowering plants are those that produce blooms on bare branches.  Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is eye-catching in flower, and produces clouds of heady scent when the sun shines.  Hamamelis ‘Jelena’  have quirky flowers that look amazing when backlit by a low winter sun, but do need a well-drained, acidic soil and a bit of space.

COLOURFUL BARK AND STEMS

The best way to add winter interest!  Against a dark backdrop or backlight by low sun, stems and branches offer dramatic architectural and textural elements to the winter garden. Planted with some evergreens for contrast, they will really bring the winter garden to life.

TEXTURAL BARK

Betula utilis var. jaquemontii, decorated for Christmas at RHS Harlow Carr

 Betula utilis var. jaquemontii  (Himalayan Silver Birch) is a familiar sight in our gardens and public spaces, and justifiably so.  The stunning white bark looks at its best on the bleakest of days set against a steely grey sky.  Smaller and more compact than the native silver birch, this tree looks particularly effective planted in small groups.

Even more beautiful, are a couple of trees which have bark in rich, warm tones, that peels as the tree grows.  Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) is stunning – the bark resembles a cinnamon stick and looks magical when lit by the winter sun.  Prunus serrula  (Tibetan Cherry) is a glossy alternative, with mahogany-like peeling bark.

COLOURFUL STEMS

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’

Easy to please are the Cornus (dogwood) varieties that are grown for their winter stem interest.  Happiest in a sunny but moist spot, these plants are most effective when the stems are cut hard back each March as it is the new growth that produces the colourful stems.  This is a real assest in a small garden, as the shrub will never grow too large.  There are many different cultivars to choose from, but popular choices include: Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ (orange and yellow fiery stems), Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (vivid red, so a superb contrast to evergreen shrubs) and Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ (a more muted red, but the variegated leaves mean that this shrub works hard in the garden all year round).

 TOPIARY

From small gardens to large estates, there is no denying the contribution that topiary can add to winter structure. It is a vital component of any formal garden.  As a designer, I prefer topiary to be used as a foil to an abundant herbaceous planting scheme in the summer and then to provide a strong structure in the emptier winter garden.  It is also a popular choice with clients who opt for a lower maintenance garden.  The possibilities are many, with the most popular plants still being box (despite the continuing threat from box blight) and yew.

LOOKING FOR winter interest INSPIRATION?

There are a number of winter gardens open to the public in the early months of the year.  Many of the photos on this page were taken on visits I made to the following locations:

RHS Harlow Carr

https://www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/harlow-carr

Dunham Massey

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dunham-massey/features/explore-the-garden-at-dunham-massey

 

CLAY SOIL – SOLUTIONS FOR A SOGGY GARDEN

 

Are you getting bogged down (literally) by your waterlogged clay soil? This wet winter has caused problems for many gardeners, and especially those who live in a newly built home.  New build gardens in Lancashire often have only a thin layer of topsoil over a compacted, heavy clay subsoil.  But don’t despair – here are some ways in which you can learn to live with, and indeed love, your tricky garden.

 

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  1. IMPROVE THE SOIL IN YOUR BEDS AND BORDERS

If you do nothing else, do this.  Clay soil in your beds and borders tends to hold water in winter then dry out and crack in summer, and plants will struggle to grow in these conditions.  The simplest way to reduce both of these problems is to incorporate bulky organic matter – and lots of it. Organic matter could be

  • Garden compost
  • Spent mushroom compost *
  • Well rotted farmyard manure (‘long manure’ with some visible straw is best)
  • Composted bark
  • Green waste from your local council (if yours offers this service –  West Lancashire and Chorley do not, unfortunately.)

Best spread onto the surface of the soil (a ‘mulch’) in spring, and worked in with a fork early autumn, organic matter will improve soil fertility, aeration, drainage and moisture retention.  You need lots – a layer 50- 100mm deep, about a barrow load per metre².  If you repeat this every year, over time you will acquire a wonderful, rich soil that plants love.

Incorporating sand or grit is an option, but not one I recommend.  You need to incorporate an awful lot for it to have an impact.  Better to spend your time and money adding organic matter.

PLEASE NOTE, WALKING ON OR WORKING A WATERLOGGED SOIL WILL CAUSE FURTHER DAMAGE.  You are best to wait to undertake any work to improve your soil until mid spring when (hopefully) it will have dried out a bit.

 

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2.INSTALL DRAINAGE

Installing drainage is heavy, disruptive work, and can be costly but, if undertaken at the start of a project, it could help avoid waterlogging problems in the future.  It is not always straightforward to install drainage in a deep, heavy clay soil like we have in West Lancashire so I would recommend that you seek advice to find out if there is a drainage solution that would work in your garden.

 

3. RAISE BEDS

Adding raised beds to your garden design is an excellent design solution, especially for new build gardens on clay soil, as they provide free draining planting areas which can be filled with good topsoil.  There are different construction options available to suit your garden style and budget, such as sleepers or rendered block walls.  All offer a high impact, low maintenance solution, and work well within a garden design to offer structure, partitions and focal features.

 

 

IMG_41104.  DIG

If raised beds are not for you and you want to add new borders, there’s nothing else for it – you will have to dig.  Double dig, ideally, to loosen soil that has been compacted by builders.  It will be very hard work, you will need to add lots of organic matter and clear out rubble.  Digging is best done late spring or early autumn when the soil is workable.  Clods of clay left on the surface will be broken down over winter by hard frosts.

 

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5.  PAMPER YOUR LAWN

A waterlogged lawn is a stressed lawn, so it is essential to do all you can to keep it healthy and strong throughout the year.  Feed and weed in spring and autumn with the correct products, and scarify in autumn to reduce moss.  Waterlogged lawns also benefit from aeration – use a hand fork for small areas.  For badly affected lawns hire a machine and ‘hollow tine’.  This removes small plugs of turf and leaves narrow holes into which you brush sand, greatly improving drainage.

A lawn that is a complete disaster may have been poorly laid on badly prepared, compacted ground.  The best course of action may be to start again on properly prepared ground.  The RHS offers advice on this https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=204.

Alternatively you may wish to …

 

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6.   CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES TO GRASS

Where waterlogged ground is combined with a shady site an alternative surface may be best.

Some of the many options available are:

  • Paving (although this can make neighbouring areas even wetter)
  • Blocks, bricks or cobbles
  • Resin bound aggregates –firm but porous surfaces in a wide range of materials, many  which are recycled
  • A gravel, bark or rubber chipping mulch
  • Artificial turf

With many options available, there will be one that suits how you use your garden and contributes to the unity of your garden design.

 

7.  SELECT PLANTS TO SUIT THE CONDITIONS

This is my favourite solution.  Whereas most plants that  will fail to thrive with their roots in water, some plants have adapted to these conditions and grow well on a wet soil. This list includes some of my top plants including Iris sibirica, Osmunda regalis and Rogersia aesculifolia.  There are even more wonderful plants that don’t want submerged roots but are very happy to be in a moist well drained soil, such as the stunning Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’, Matteuccia struthriopteris and Primula japonica ‘Miller’s Crimson’.  For these plants to thrive, the soil mustn’t dry out in the summer, so be sure to work on improving the soil first (point 1).

One of the major benefits of investing in professional planting design is that your designer will select plants to thrive in your garden.  If you choose your own plants, research is essential to avoid costly mistakes.

 

IMG_21008.  CREATE A BOG GARDEN

I love this solution too, best for the low point in your garden that never dries out.   Accept what you have and make the most of it!  You can incorporate lovely plants with lots of structure and interest, and make a weak point into a real feature.  Again, the RHS have advice to offer https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=356

As with any garden, forward planning and good design will reap rewards for years to come.  If you would like me to look at your garden and suggest possible solutions, I offer a ‘Design Options’ consultation in addition to my garden and planting design services.  Please contact me to arrange an appointment.

*It is important to know whether you have an acid, neutral or alkaline soil.  Some plants have a preference for acid or alkaline conditions and need a soil that matches.  A very high or low pH makes for challenging growing conditions in general.  Soil testing kits are available from garden centres, B&Q sell a good one.