Top tips for winter gardens
Jonny Norton, head gardener at the National Trust’s Mottisfont, offers winter gardening advice
Soil type: Your winter garden’s location and soil type is key. Choose plants that thrive in the conditions specific to your garden
Low-level planting: Use bulbs and perennials around structural shrubs. Winter aconite, galanthus, crocus, early narcissi and hardy perennials such as Helleborus niger and orientalis are all well worth including.
Pruning: Think about what the plant naturally does and choose your pruning harshness accordingly. We hard prune our salix (willow) in mid-spring just as the new basal shoots emerge which will develop into the graceful stems. This method of pruning is often referred to as stooling
Upkeep: Maintenance in the winter garden is no different to other areas of the garden. We adopt a ‘no dig’ method of gardening (where possible). March/April is the big time for weeding, pruning and mulching
There really is no need to settle for an empty, desolate garden once the showy summer brights and fiery autumn colours are no longer available. There are plenty of options for colour and scent to enjoy throughout the winter months.
Winter is more subtle, as most of the flowers are not large or showy at this time of the year, but it’s well worth admiring the details nature has on offer. This is the time to admire the structure of evergreens, architectural foliage, parchment-toned grasses, vibrant stark stems, beautiful barks, berries and delicately scented flowers.
Whether you are aiming for a succession of highlight plants throughout the year or embracing the trend for a dedicated winter garden bed, the possibilities are many, even if it’s just a seasonal container by the door.
On an overcast day, the rich hues will lift your spirits and on a crisp, bright day when the sunlight intensifies the effect, it can be breathtaking.
From flaming cornus stems lighting up in the winter sunshine above carpets of hellebores to the delicious vanilla scent of Sarcococca ruscifolia (Christmas Box) as it comes into bloom, and the combination of perfume and backlit sunset hues of witch hazels, there is much to inspire.
Dustings of snow or frosty dewdrops sparkling on filigree cobwebs transform the scene further. Topiary balls may be reminiscent of stout puddings sprinkled with snowy icing sugar, while skeletal branches take on sculptural forms against the sky. Contrasts and colours can be intensified in the low shafts of winter light, creating atmospheric vignettes that fill the senses.
How to create a winter flowerbed or border
First, decide where you want to add some winter interest and what plants you’d like to use for the look you’re planning to create.
Choosing a location
As we spend less time outdoors in winter, positioning your winter bed where it can be seen from inside is a way to really enjoy the picture you have created. Plant east to west to catch the best of the morning and late-afternoon sun, which will light up fiery stems and outline the shapes of deciduous trees.
Make the most of sweet-smelling plants by positioning them by paths – they’ll release their scents as you brush past.
Winter exposes the bare bones of a garden, giving you an opportunity to take a critical look and see where the gaps are.
How to choose the right plants for a winter garden
Six top winter plants used at Wakehurst
(Top row, left to right)
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’
A sharp citrus fragrance and vibrantly coloured flowers evoking the plant’s name, this Witch Hazel is one of the very best winter flowerers. Plant in free-draining soil near a path and be patient, it’s slow growing but worth the wait.
Bergenia purpurescens ‘Eroica’
This plant is wonderful in large groups for landscape effect, its burnished bronze leaves glinting in the winter sun. Dusky pink flowers follow in the summer and this Bergenia is endearingly vigorous. Plant in semi-shade or full sun in a wide range of soils.
Betula utilis var jacquemontii
Reliably elegant in stature, this tree works wonderfully as an individual specimen for a smaller garden or in a tightly planted grove for larger spaces. It prefers free draining soil and larger specimens should be supported when newly planted, with a low stake and flexible ties.
(Bottom row, left to right)
Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’
There are lots of red Cornus cultivars, but are as reliable or as strong as Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’. It has the most impact when planted in a group and they can tolerate a wide range of soils, preferring some organic matter. Winter Cornus can be cut down hard in the spring to produce strong coloured shoots for the following winter and plants should be fed with a balanced fertiliser after this treatment.
Erica x darlyensis ‘Mediterranean Pink’
Heathers are deemed unfashionable by some but few plants flower as strongly in mid-winter or exhibit such strong colours. This heather has rich pink flowers borne on wiry, compact stems. Always happiest on sandy acid soils, ensure heathers are well watered during establishment.
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’
This grass forms a reliable tight clump and has beautiful squirrel-tale flowers that glow in low light. It loves full sun and free-draining soil and can be interwoven with flowering plants or planted solely in big groups.
Autumn is an ideal time to plant trees and shrubs before the severe frosts arrive, while the soil is still warm. Choose shrubs and trees with multi-season interest, such as cornus for flowers, autumn foliage and winter stems, or prunus for blossom, autumn foliage and gleaming bark in winter. Check the labels to ensure they will suit your garden.
Evergreens provide form year-round, allowing you to paint with shades of green. Look for variegated or strikingly shaped leaves, or those that can be clipped into topiary shapes.
Some have winter flowers, such as mahonias with their golden spikes, and don’t forget the richly scented daphnes. Look for architectural choices such as bamboo, hardy palms, phormiums, yuccas or elegant cloud-pruned Ilex crenata. A repetition of plants gives structure, continuity and a rhythm to your design.
Fruiting plants and berries
Hardy fruiting plants carry the colours of autumn into winter with their bright berries in golds, oranges, reds, pinks and even purple, hanging like mini baubles or shining lanterns among evergreen foliage.
Most berry-producing trees and shrubs are easy to grow, don’t need much pruning, and tolerate a range of soils and climatic conditions, including frost, wind and drought. There are choices for both large and small gardens so it’s worth doing a bit of research and visiting your local garden centre to see what’s on offer.
The best way to introduce berries in a small garden is as boundary plants, trained or espaliered against a wall, such as glossy orange, red or yellow berried pyracantha or crimson cotoneaster. Ornamental crab apples have probably the best of all the winter fruits and with their spring blossom have great versatility of sizes.
For a larger space, rows of crab apples could line a drive or be dotted across a lawn, but there are also small varieties that are ideal for compact spaces, courtyards or even containers.
Don’t overlook the evergreens, such as holly; you can even clip them as topiary for the tiniest space. Red berries in particular are really set off with a foil of deep green foliage behind. Think glossy viburnums, or the much-maligned but hardy cotoneasters, as well as Christmassy hollies, while you’re browsing the garden centre.
Vibrantly colourful stems are important elements in any winter scheme. Look out for red, orange, yellow, purple or black stems from cornus and willow varieties as well as white from ornamental bramble.
Once they are established they should be cut back hard in early spring, and fed and mulched to ensure the best colour, and then – the added bonus – use the cut stems as plant supports. A good tip is to plant where they catch the season’s low sunshine so they can really shine.
Include the power of bark, such as a mini copse of shimmering white stems of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, silky smooth mahogany Prunus serrula or the tactile peeling orange beauty of Acer griseum with its exfoliating peels and curls that catch the light.
Floral beauty may be scarce but every bloom is appreciated and the rich fragrances of winter flowers are especially welcome, from white hellebores and winter honeysuckle to the winter-flowering viburnums, fragrant box and the liquorice scent of spidery Hamamelis (witch hazels).
Nature has a reason for strongly fragrant winter blooms as the more scented the flower, the better its chance of attracting bumblebees or moths.
Allow late- season perennials and ornamental grasses to ‘die heroically’, as the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf puts it. These muted brown hues and skeletal shapes can grace the garden right through winter.
Complete your design with sculptural pieces for impact year round, such as rustic supports, painted obelisks, recycled finds or a striking sculpture.
Create a planting scheme
- Take time to observe the subtle combinations at this quieter time in the garden Using a controlled, limited palette of two or three plants in blocks, lends drama to a scheme
- For berries, consider callicarpa and euonymus for the unexpected colours of purple and pink berries
- Select hardy plants that look good through winter with coloured stems or interesting bark
- Balance elements of shape, structure, colour, contrast and texture
- Remember all the levels – from trees and shrubs, grasses and perennials to bulbs and ground covers
Caring for wildlife in the winter
ADVICE FROM THE RSPB
Food: Suet balls or cakes are good high-energy foods. Sunflower seeds and nuts are also high in fat, as are small black nyjer seeds - a favourite of goldfinches and siskins. Peanuts should be fed in a secure feeder to avoid birds choking; they can also contain a natural toxin which can kill birds so make sure you buy your peanuts from a reputable trader. Buy high quality bird food, as lower priced foods are often bulked out with nutrient poor grains like barley, or large pulses like lentils and beans, which only the very large birds can eat.
Shelter: Put up a nesting box as small birds will use them as shelter in winter and often come back to the same box in spring to nest. Nest boxes with a hole of 32mm is perfect for blue tits, great tits and house sparrows, while open boxes will attract robins, wrens or pied wagtails.
Site the box to face between north and east, so that it’s shielded from direct sunlight and the wettest winds, and well out of reach of roaming cats and squirrels. House martins and sparrows will be happy in boxes high up in roof eaves, while robins and wrens like to be two metres high.
Spare a thought for the creatures that also call our gardens home as the winter sets in – a few touches now will turn your garden into a wildlife haven.
Mixed hedges and groups of native species will provide natural food and shelter. Rake some leaves under shrubs, as besides being a great mulch, they will allow birds to forage for insect larvae and beetles. A pile of leaves may be used by a hibernating hedgehog and the warm compost heap can be the winter resort for a variety of animals.
Creating habitats for overwintering can be as simple as leaving some dry plant stems in the beds, the perfect place for insects to crawl inside for shelter. You can also add a log pile, or include trees and shrubs for nesting.
Plants with berries and winter flowers provide food for birds or mammals and flowers for pollinators. Don’t forget to keep the birdbath clean and fresh. You can keep it free from ice this by putting a table tennis ball in the water - which will move around keeping the water free from ice.
We can expect visiting birds from abroad alongside native sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, tits, finches and thrushes. Birds need a high fat diet to keep them warm, but if you feed them it needs to be done regularly so they don’t waste energy getting there and finding no food.
Winter gardens to visit
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Take a winter walk through one of the many gardens that now stay open year round with specially planted winter garden areas. They are full of inspiration for combinations and new plants that you can translate to your own garden, even on the tiniest scale.
Romsey, Hampshire, SO51 0LP
Sloping winter garden with thousands of winter and early spring bulbs.
Lode, Cambridgeshire CB25 9EJ
Vibrant colours, textures and scents fill the winter garden, with honeysuckle, silver fern brambles and sarcococca.
RHS Harlow Carr
Harrogate, Yorkshire, HG3 1UE
Grasses star in winter, with masterful use of bright stems and trees, plus raised veg beds.
The Savill Garden
Englefield Green, Surrey, TW20 0UU
Ornamental winter beds with vibrant stems, witch hazels, and national mahonia collection.
Ardingly, West Sussex, RH17 6TN
Kew’s country seat is full of architectural greens, scents, textural barks and parchment-toned grasses. The new winter garden, is full of sensory delight and the perfect place to lift the spirits on a cold winter’s day. It weaves 33,000 plants into a bold contemporary composition. Mature Himalayan silver birch trees are the centre of attention, the dramatic pure white trunks interspersed with the coppery gleam of the Tibetan Cherry. Texture and colour come from massed blocks of cornus, succulent bronze bergenia, soft, feather-like calamagrostis and hellebores. Swathes of cyclamen, grasses, snowdrops, crocus and box hedging draw the eye through the garden. The all-weather path twists and turns throughout the garden, adding to the feeling of discovery – you don’t quite know what you will see around the next corner.