Looking after your garden during winter

PUBLISHED: 09:01 29 December 2014 | UPDATED: 14:23 25 March 2015

The witch hazel Hamamelis ‘Jelena’

The witch hazel Hamamelis ‘Jelena’


Award-winning gardener Neil Lucas reveals his ideal recipe for bringing colour, fragrance and interest into your garden even in the darkest days of winter

Mahonia lomarifolia provides long racemes of bright flower.Mahonia lomarifolia provides long racemes of bright flower.

When planning for winter interest in the garden there are three distinct groups of plants to consider. Firstly there are those that are at their peak of interest during the quieter months such as winter flowering shrubs and bulbs. Secondly there are the evergreens such as hollies and sedges which provide permanent structure during summer and winter. The third group consists of those often overlooked plants that might have their optimum time during the summer but whose other qualities make them hugely valuable for the winter too - namely the grasses and perennials.

Flowering plants & bulbs

Abeliophyllum distichum Roseum or white forsythia 'Roseum' - a scented beautyAbeliophyllum distichum Roseum or white forsythia 'Roseum' - a scented beauty

Snowdrops and crocuses are easy to grow bulbs that provide colour and nectar for insects very early in the year. On a larger scale the witch hazels, such as Hamamelis ‘Jelena’, produce intricate and often scented flowers from bare stems. Beloved by bees, Mahonias offer early yellow flowers (some are scented) and distinctive evergreen foliage. I love my large Mahonia lomarifolia; while not scented, it provides long racemes of bright flower. Others to consider include Garrya elliptica (silk tassel bush) with its unusual greyish catkins that hang down from grey-green evergreen foliage, and the seldom seen Sycopsis sinensis (Chinese fighazel) which almost hides its exquisite yellow, red-anthered flowers amongst its dark leathery evergreen foliage.

If you are looking for scent and beauty the Abeliophyllum distichum Roseum (or white forsythia ‘Roseum’) has both. Small enough to be grown in a large pot against a south facing wall, its delicately scented pink flowers emerge from leafless bare stems around late January or February. For an even more powerful fragrance the winter box, Sarcococca Digyna, is a compact evergreen that can throw its scent some distance from almost invisible white flowers hidden under its leaves.

A beautiful winter combination: Miscanthus 'Flamingo', Eupatorium Atropurpureum, Panicum 'Heavy Metal' and Veronicastrum virginicumA beautiful winter combination: Miscanthus 'Flamingo', Eupatorium Atropurpureum, Panicum 'Heavy Metal' and Veronicastrum virginicum

Beautiful winter partnerships

Grasses are a huge group of plants whose sheer adaptability and toughness can be used in a garden setting to great advantage. Summer flowering grasses such as Miscanthus, Panicum, Pennisetum and Calamagrostis also add their effervescent flowers to the mix. They work beautifully when combined with more solid flowering perennials, such as eupatoriums, sedums, rudbeckias, veronicastrums and verbenas.

Grasses have also developed what is effectively a coat of varnish on their stems allowing them to stand tall, though dormant, during the winter months. There are many perennials that will also ‘stand’ or ‘dry’ well, creating beautiful winter partnerships with grasses. One of my favourite combinations is Miscanthus ‘Flamingo’, Eupatorium Atropurpureum, Panicum ‘Heavy Metal’ and Veronicastrum virginicum. Fabulous as it is during the summer months, the combination of subtle colourations and effects from the dried foliage is equally satisfying later in the year. Tall and upright Calamagrostis Karl Foerster, surrounded by the shorter ground covering Jerusalem sage, Phlomis russeliana, is another great combination, doubly so when the dried spikes of whorled dark brown flower heads of the sage wear a coating of frost.

Rather like following a recipe by adding a good sprinkling of winter flowering bulbs, a few tough evergreens for shelter and some early flowering shrubs and you will have a garden that delights the senses, and the wildlife, for every season of the year.

Colourful bark

You can also add colour to a winter garden with the bark of some trees. The cinnamon barked myrtle Luma apiculata, is valued as much for its bark as for it dark green leaves and masses of white summer flowers. At Knoll we underplant it with the sedge, Carex ‘Evergold’. The combination of bark and foliage is equally stunning summer or winter.

Other colourfully barked trees to consider include silver birch in all its forms and many of the maples, especially the snakebark maples. The moosewood, Acer pensylvanicum var. Erythrocladum in Knoll’s Decennium border has wonderful striated bark, reddish while young and turning yellow when mature. The young cork bark oak, Quercus suber,
is another favourite. The roughly textured bark is amazingly soft to the touch and the source of bottle corks.


Hollies have traditionally provided sparkle during the winter, sometimes with their crops of eagerly-awaited berries, but always for the burnished leaves that come in a dazzling variety of mosaic-like patterns. A favourite of mine is the wide-leaved less spiny Ilex Lawsoniana. Other superb evergreens always worthy of a place in the winter scene include Photinias for their large, sometime serrated dark green foliage and red spring shoots; Griselinia littoralis for its year-round apple green leaves that make superlative hedges, and Pittosporums for their mottled foliage.

Much closer to the ground, but providing essential cover and texture, are evergreen sedges such as Carex divulsa with its dark green leaves, or the pleasingly variegated Carex ‘Ice Dance’ which is almost indestructible and great for dry shade.


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