I was chatting to a friend at the community garden yesterday as we collected leaves and pruned the willows about the beauty of oca with its lush trailing leaves and jewel-like edible tubers. To my mind, harvesting these colourful tubers is one of the most joyful moments in the winter garden, along with watching the birds pass through – we had long-tailed tits, goldfinches, goldcrest and red kite at the community garden this week. So for the final part of the series, I’m taking a look at the way seed heads, containers, crops and birds all add a little bit of extra magic to the winter garden.
During the winter months, as we gardeners spend a little less time outside due to short days and cold weather, the birds increasingly use our gardens to supplement their winter diets. The berries on my cotoneaster and pyracantha disappear into the bills of hungry thrushes, pigeons and even, in cold winters, waxwings, whilst winter seed heads attract smaller birds. Supplementing these natural food sources with seed feeders is important, but nothing beats watching birds feed on the seed heads and berries in your own garden.
Stems and seed heads also create winter habitats for invertebrates which, in turn, provide more food for birds. Perhaps my favourite seed heads in the garden are the tight balls of globe thistle (Echinops ritro) against the dusty light grey plumes of Russian sage (Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’). In the back garden, the softer combination of Verbena bonariensis and Knautia macedonica provides ideal perches for passing charms of goldfinches. These gilded songster bend the heads low, balancing delicately, bobbing up and down as they search for seeds, delighting my children who are watching from the window. Echinacea, phlomis and sedum seed heads also have mesmerising shapes and I love any form of umbellifer head, such as fennel, at its best when encrusted with rime frost on cold mornings.
Even if there’s little scope to add plants to your garden, or your plot is a courtyard with no planting area, a winter container will brighten up the entrance to a house or an area on the patio visible from a window. Simple arrangements of violas, pansies or primulas create a cheerful effect and in larger pots you could include shrubs or grasses for a longer lasting display. I often plant a dogwood as the centrepiece as my ‘Midwinter Fire’ has a tendency to sucker so I always have dogwoods looking for a home. Adding some of our excess black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) from the front garden creates a contrast around the base of the container and leaves room for winter bedding or early spring bulbs like snowdrops, iris or miniature daffodils.
Finally, I can’t ignore the potential to grow food in the winter garden. Most of the fruit is now over, with the quince (Cydonia oblonga ‘Meeches Prolific’) and Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) being amongst the last harvests in October and November. The autumn raspberries peaked early this year and were gone by the end of October, whereas last year we were still picking ‘Autumn Bliss’ and ‘All Gold’ on Christmas Day! But this doesn’t mean all the colour and edible potential has to come to an end with the arrival of winter in the kitchen garden. Early winter is the ideal time to harvest oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – by now the foliage is generally frosted so it’s an unprepossessing looking crop above ground, but it more than makes up for this below the surface. Stealing out into the garden or allotment on the grimmest of winter days, armed with fork and trug, to unearth strange red, orange and yellow nuggets is one of the joys of growing your own. The tubers taste best after a a couple of weeks sweetening on a sunny windowsill, so you will be able to enjoy the gleaming hoard arrayed like Christmas decorations for a full fortnight before adding them to a Sunday roast, warming stew or spicy stir-fry.
Sprouts are another winter pleasure, especially if they also add to the culinary colour palette. Last year I grew ‘Rubine’ with its purple-red balls of sprouty goodness which looked attractive in the cold allotment and tasted great after the first hard frost had sweetened them. Later on we also ate the cabbagey heads of the plant which shared the same purple coloration. Kale is another cruciferous delight, both to harvest and simply for its textured beauty which equals that of any ornamental plant.
Frosted cavolo nero and purple sprouting broccoli in the garden
I love the festive magic that Christmas lights bring to a dark winter garden, especially if they are used to highlight an attractive tree trunk or well clipped hedge and I’m excited by the prospect of visiting the sparkling trail of over one million lights at Kew Gardens next week. But before you switch on the Christmas illuminations this weekend, spare a thought for the garden by daylight and add a plant or two to create some winter glamour up to Christmas and beyond.
If you would like to read the first two parts of Creating A Winter Garden, you can find them here…
For further reading about winter gardens, I would recommend...
The Year Round Garden, Geoff Stebbings
The Winter Garden, Val Bourne
What Plant When, RHS Publications
What plants have you added to the garden this season to add that extra sparkle when the weather turns cold? If there was one plant which every winter garden should include, what would it be?
Do leave me a comment and let me know what winter brings to your garden. Thank you and happy gardening (once the snow clears 🙂 )!