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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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