Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

The speckled flowers of Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and its creamy white counterpart ‘Jingle Bells’ are twining along the bare apple espaliers with some intrepid stems nearly reaching the ground. I planted the clematis by the post closest to the dining room window so that we could see it from the table and judging by the profusion of tight buds, we should be enjoying their swaying bells throughout the next few months. I’ve just been chatting to Nick Coffer on BBC Three Counties Radio this afternoon (our chat starts at 2:38:20 on the iPlayer link) about the precious beauty of winter flowers and why every garden should have at least one dogwood to shine out in the darkest days (but I would say that!)

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Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’

To my mind, one of the key aspects of a successful winter garden, especially on a smaller plot, is being able to see plants from indoors. Although I love nothing more than wrapping the family up like a troupe of miniature snowmen to venture out in frost or snow to explore magnificent winter gardens like those at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Hyde Hall, the average back garden doesn’t have the space for groves of silver birch or sweeping vistas of dogwoods and willows, and much winter viewing will be conducted from the warmth of the home. So it’s important to consider the overall winter structure of the garden first, to ensure that when viewed from the house there will be strong lines to create interest. Then other factors can be explored, such as adding scent and colour to the garden within the evergreen structure.


The key element of any garden is its underlying structure, created by the hard landscaping (patio, paths, etc…) and its use of evergreen plants, especially trees and shrubs. When other plants lose their foliage as winter approaches, these evergreen stalwarts take centre stage and the bare bones of the garden are revealed.

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Front garden rosemary hedge from January to March

Traditionally low hedges and topiary are used to create this structure, often in box (Buxus sempervirens), yew (Taxus baccata) or holly (Ilex). In my front garden, we’ve adapted this principle by using edible evergreens – trisecting the space with a rosemary hedge (Rosmarinus officinalis) and defining the boundary with a low Chilean guava hedge (Ugni molinae). Alongside three box balls, the hedges give the garden a strong structure in winter and their low height allows my summer flowers to quickly overtop them, softening the garden and creating a less formal look.

Winter bare bones followed by summer profusion

We’ve also used this idea in the side garden, where the relatively slow growing balls of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ contrast the golden gravel. These chocolate-purple shrubs with their sprinkling of light green new leaves are a good alternative to box balls if your garden suffers from box blight (a fungal disease) or box tree caterpillars (extra-voracious versions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar).

The evergreens going in and maturing

_20190707_205202Summer brings a looser feel to the garden

If you don’t have space to add shrubs in the ground, any of these plants can be grown in containers and simply moved into position in beds and borders to act as winter focal points when the perennials die down. Using containers also has the advantage, in a small garden, of allowing winter stars to shine in their season and to be moved into a less obvious positions as the spring and summer plants get into their stride. For this reason, I have two witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’) in containers behind the shed, ready to place on the patio in full view of the windows as their flowers emerge in late winter and to return to the shelter of the shed later in the year.

‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’ in flower


As I write, sitting on the window seat in the sunshine, I can see next door’s mahonia (very likely Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’) with its yellow racemes of flowers reaching into the blue. I used to dislike mahonia with its tough, spiny foliage and cold lemon flowers, but recently I’ve come to admire the colour it adds to the garden on darker days and its tolerance for partial shade and a wide variety of soil types, including our heavy alkaline clay. My volte-face was complete when I learnt that the fruits are edible – their common name is ‘Oregon Grape’ and they are often used for preserves in the US due to their tart, earthy flavour and large number of seeds.


How could I have failed to relish the sheer winter joy that is mahonia?

Hellebores are also an important element in many winter gardens with their delicate down-turned flowers encouraging a close-up study best undertaken lying recumbent in the leaf litter. I’m excited to be growing hellebores for the first time this year, especially as I bought the plants from our community garden open day, so their exact colour is currently a mystery. It’s a plant I’ve wanted to grow for many years and I’m looking forward to getting to know this understated woodland beauty better.

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Winter sun washes the hellebores in Regent’s Park

Part 2

Next time I’ll be considering scent and stems/bark as ways to extend the season of interest in the garden. In the meantime, enjoy the unexpected sight of any winter flowers and celebrate evergreen structure wherever you find it. 

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ is living up to her name and resolutely refusing to admit that it’s December!

Dogwood Days and Cornus Concerns

There are so many things to love about this time of year: spring bulbs with their intricate shapes and shining colours, seedlings exploding from pots all over the house, warmer weather and light evenings for playing with plants in the potting shed after the kids are in bed. But despite these advantages, there is always a tinge of sadness when it’s finally time to say goodbye to the winter stalwarts of the garden – my dogwoods and their stunning stems.

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My favourite dogwood – Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’


Putting off the inevitable…

Traditional advice is to prune dogwood at the end of February in warmer areas of the country and the beginning of March in other areas. I am, I admit, late this year. I could blame my tardiness on being insanely busy, what with growing plants for the school summer fete, volunteering in two community gardens, working part-time and looking after two lively, beautiful, exhausting children over the holidays. But really it’s because I can’t bear to say goodbye to my favourite plants until next winter. I pruned the two Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ at the back of the garden, the one in the pot at the front and the three Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ in the gravel garden in March. (They should be pruned from the third or fourth spring when they are growing strongly, with less vigorous specimens like ‘Midwinter Fire’ only pruned every other year if preferred. Cut the stems back to 5-7.5cm from ground level, or to the previous year’s stubs in order to coppice the plant and encourage next year’s crop of bright stems.)

Then I looked at the fabulous orange display from my oldest ‘Midwinter Fire’ by the writer’s bench and the cheerful green stems of the Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ in the main flowerbed and instantly found more important jobs to do. Indeed, the RHS advice page has recently acknowledged that ‘to allow maximum time to enjoy the colourful stems’ people are furtively pruning from late March to mid April up and down the country without having a negative impact on plants.


A much reduced specimen ready for stunning stems next year – I don’t always fully coppice this dogwood as I like a bit of structure by the shed throughout the year

Moving on

But today I finally accepted that the belated chop couldn’t be ignored any longer. Fortunately the plum blossom, daffodils and fritillaries are now looking fabulous near the bench and the tulips are blooming in the flowerbed; spring is moving on. In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation I struck cuttings of all three varieties. I’m not sure what I’ll do with twenty baby dogwood plants next year, but I’ll work that part out later. Probably give them to friends and family (those who haven’t already reached Cornus saturation point).


The Cornus Crèche


My cornus addiction began with trips to stunning gardens like the Anglesey Abbey winter garden. There they take centre stage, along with willows (Salix), witch hazel (Hamamelis) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). Once the vibrant winter colour is gone they remain quiet allowing other plants to shine around them, but they are waiting to take centre stage when the garden falls quiet between autumn and spring. As well as their aesthetic appeal, dogwood has many uses in the garden. I use the prunings for colourful peasticks or to weave as a low barrier in the willow den. They are easy to grow as cuttings as long as the soil remains moist, in fact I’ve used the stems in flower arrangements only to find they’ve grown roots in the water and can then be carefully potted up. I think there’s a space in every garden for a dogwood. Good job really, considering the number I propagate each year!


Stems from a couple of years ago used as a low barrier in the willow den