Creating A Winter Garden (Part 3)

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.

Seed Heads

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.

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Waxwing in next door’s tree

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.

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One of a small crowd of redwings in the cotoneaster

Containers

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.

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The large container outside our front door

Crops

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.

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Trays of oca which I harvested from the allotment last year

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…

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 2)

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 🙂 )!

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Creating A Winter Garden (Part 2)

Last weekend, the first part of Creating a Winter Garden considered structure and flowers. Thanks to everyone who shared images of their winter gardens: those small moments which lift our spirits on short December days.

Stems and Bark

The scarcity of winter flowers means that a wall liberally covered in clematis ‘Freckles’ is a precious sight, but a successful winter garden needs to rely on more than flowers for year-round visual impact. Stems and bark create drama in a garden of any size – if you have room for a small tree like the popular Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula), it will add a coppery sheen to even the dullest winter afternoon. I used to have the privilege of a mature specimen just beyond the garden and without any room in our own plot for extra trees other than the apples, plum and greengage I planted upon arrival, I counted myself fortunate to be able to ‘borrow’ this cherry, along with a tall silver birch in my neighbour’s garden to the left and a hazel to the right which drops its nuts over our fence. Then, a few years ago, the cherry was removed to make way for a shed. I still mourn the loss of the mahogany giant, more than I miss the resulting loss of privacy beyond our fruit cage.

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Himalayan silver birches at Anglesey Abbey

Himalayan silver birches have an ethereal quality which lifts any dark space. In the magnificent grove at Anglesey Abbey these slender trees are underplanted with evergreen Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ and tulips in spring. However, unnamed forms of Himalayan silver birch (Betula utilis) vary greatly in size and most will outgrow a small garden. Val Bourne recommends Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Silver Shadow’ as the smallest, slowest growing birch with white bark, reaching 8m when mature. The Chinese red-bark birch (Betula albosinensis) is also a winter beauty with smooth cinnamon bark beneath the peeling layers, although cultivars will reach up to 15m when mature. Acer griseum – the paper-bark maple – also looks spectacular in winter as its textured bark peels and flakes like a lizard shedding scales. At a mature height of 10m or less and with vibrant red autumn foliage, this is a hard-working tree for any medium-sized garden.

If your garden, like mine, is too small for additional trees – don’t despair! Rich colours can still be achieved by using stems rather than tree trunks. Bamboos offer colour all year round. Phyllostachys nigra has matt black culms and Phyllostachys aurea golden-yellow. Over the summer I visited the 2 acre Henstead Exotic Garden in Suffolk, where the bamboo grove is both delightful and powerful; the height of the plants alongside the sheer density of the thicket, transported me to another world. I felt drawn to the plants, to run my fingers up the smooth grain and round the ridged nodes. Even a small area of bamboo can create a tranquil ambience in a garden with its exotic form and gently swaying culms, but the atmosphere will be far from relaxing if the bamboo rhizomes transgress outside their allotted space, so always find out which species are suitable for your garden and add any necessary barriers to protect the rest of the garden from exploring roots.

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Bamboo grove at Henstead Exotic Garden

I couldn’t end my musings on winter garden stems without mentioning shrubby dogwoods. As regular readers will know, I admire these plants for their resilience, versatility and vibrancy in the depths of winter. I currently have ten dogwoods in my garden, of three different species: Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, but I also love the variegated Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ and the dark, almost black stems of Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’, both of which I’ve planted in previous gardens and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ which was looking fresh and alive with such bright yellow-green foliage en masse at Bressingham Gardens in Norfolk earlier in the year.

 

 

Grasses and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ creating contrasting layers in Bressingham Gardens

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Potting shed ‘Midwinter Fire’

The advantage of these shrubs is that they can be stooled (cut back to near ground level) in spring and will slowly regrow throughout the summer as a quiet backdrop to other shrubs and perennials, and then be ready to take over once winter arrives. Single plants can be used in this way in small borders, but they look better in groups of three or more, especially if they are kept as smaller plants. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is not as tolerant of hard pruning as the other species, so I lightly prune the three in the front garden each year to manage their size and shape, and to encourage new stems which have the best winter colour. I have a larger specimen in the back by the potting shed, which I leave to grow to around 1.5m and cut back by about a third every couple of years. ‘Midwinter Fire’ also has the advantage of gentle orange autumn colour and this year, in the shelter of the back garden, the foliage remains even though it is long gone at the front.

Scent

One of the most pleasurable sensations on a winter walk is when you suddenly catch a sweet scent stealing over a garden wall or from a hidden shrubbery. Using fragrance in a winter garden entices you to stop and appreciate the sensory experience, grounding you in the physical garden rather than just passing quickly through en route to the warmth of the home. Plants with winter scent need to be situated carefully – in a place where their fragrance will be caught in passing, so front gardens and containers are ideal spots. One of the best plants for winter aroma is Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa) with its tiny white flowers belying its intoxicatingly sweet scent. Alongside evergreen foliage, its tolerance of shade and ability to create a neat hedge mean that Christmas box is a must have for any serious winter garden.

Viburnum x bodnantense is another shrub whose insistent perfume causes a pause for a moment’s joy when out walking and Dan Pearson recommends the cultivar ‘Deben’ or Viburnum farreri ‘Candidissimum’ which can be seen at Anglesey Abbey with its white scented flowers. Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) has lemon scented flowers which cover this rather untidy looking shrub for much of the winter. It doesn’t stand alone as a specimen plant, but works well combined with evergreen shrubs, waiting in the background whilst its perfume pervades the surrounding area. Daphnes also provide a beautiful winter scent, with Daphne odora and Daphne mezereum being the best choices for colder gardens. It’s worth noting that daphnes are highly poisonous, so not suitable for gardens with young children. Where scent is concerned, it only takes one fragrant shrub to add magic to a cold bare garden and if grown in a container, once the flowers have gone, the container can be moved to make way for spring bulbs.

 

 

Look out for winter jasmine this month and flowering quince and hazel flowers in late winter/early spring

Part 3

On Saturday, I’ll be looking at seed heads, containers and crops in the winter garden. Hopefully the weather will be kind over the weekend and enable a few forays out into the fresh air. 🙂

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Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

The speckled flowers of Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and its creamy white counterpart ‘Jingle Bells’ have begun to festoon the bare apple espaliers with some intrepid stems nearly trailing along 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.

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 atmosphere.

 

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’ create a stunning contrast to 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

DSC_0071 (2)Summer 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

Flowers

As I write, sitting on the window seat in the December 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.

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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 (although in my garden a couple of summer annuals seem not to have realised that it’s December) and celebrate evergreen structure wherever you find it. Happy December!

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