Planting for year-round colour
If you looked out at your garden last winter and thought how dreary it looked, then this is a great time to add some plants that will cheer it up.
There are several basic plant types that will reward you with colour and interest throughout the year and you can choose from within each group to find one that suits your garden, whatever its size.
Shrubs that flower in winter often have a stronger fragrance than summer-flowering ones because they need to attract the few pollinating insects that are around during colder weather. Site them near a door so you can appreciate the scent on a calm day.
Within this group, there are both evergreen and deciduous plants. Evergreens will keep their leaves in winter to give the garden structure and provide shelter for birds and insects. Deciduous shrubs will shed their leaves, often in a blaze of colour in autumn before getting fresh new leaves in spring.
Viburnum - there are both evergreen and deciduous types, both of which contain species that will flower over the winter.
e.g Viburnum tinus (evergreen) and Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ (deciduous with a fantastic fragrance)
Mahonia - prickly evergreen leaves and long tassels of pretty yellow bell-shaped flowers that smell like lily-of-the-valley. For a non-prickly version, look for ‘Soft Caress’
- the “shrubby honeysuckles” have small flowers, but great fragrance. Red- and cream- flowered varieties are available.
- long name, nice small-medium evergreen plant with flowers throughout the winter.
- winter-flowering heathers are low-growing evergreen plants, great as ground cover and they produce a stunning display as the temperature drops. Flower colours include reds, purples, pinks and white amid foliage that may be green, grey, gold or orange, many of which change as the season goes on and becomes more intense.
* Avoid painted or dyed heathers, which will be plain green with white flowers once the colour wears off.
These have been sneered at by the gardening fashionistas for a long time, but they are unrivalled for giving a garden colour, structure and texture during the winter. Whether you choose green, grey, blue or golden yellow, conifers will brighten the garden and also give cover to small birds. Some, like Cryptomeria japonica, even change colour in winter from green to a glowing purple-bronze. Most have fragrant foliage if you crush a few leaves, especially Thuja, which smells of oranges.
Do read the label to check the ultimate size before you buy, because those labelled slow-growing may still end up quite big. Look for the word “dwarf” for the truly smaller varieties.
Plants like holly will grow into trees, given long enough, but for a quicker impact, look for Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ for pretty pale pink flowers that are produced during warmer spells throughout the autumn and winter.
Bulbs and corms
Plant bulbs beneath deciduous shrubs and trees for colour while the plant above is bare. By the time the leaves appear, the bulbs will be dying down, so you can even plant in drier areas of the garden.
If you have room, plant into containers and stand these near the door or window so you can appreciate them without having to venture outside. After they have flowered, allow them to die down naturally and then plant them in the garden to enjoy over coming years.
Plant cyclamen, winter aconites, crocus, Muscari, narcissus, Leucojum and tulips for a succession of flowers from September through until May.
There are less perennials flowering in winter, but hellebores and Bergenia are reliable performers.
If you leave the seed heads on some of your plants, like hydrangea or fennel, rather than ruthlessly cutting everything down in autumn, you will be rewarded by some wonderful effects as frost dusts the top and spiders create dew-spangled webs. The birds will also appreciate the seeds left on plants like lavender over winter as well as any rose hips.
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