Ensure your outdoor space looks its best during the colder months with Matt James’ expert tips on designing and planning a garden that stands out.
Colour might be sparse in the garden during the cold winter months, so every little touch of it counts. Happily, there are plenty of opportunities to brighten up grey days and improve the view from your house. From simple solutions for adding instant impact, to ideas on what to plan in preparation for next winter, read on to find out what you can do to add colour and interest to your outdoor space.
Frosts may have put paid to summer bedding in October, but there are still plenty of plants you can use now that will lift the spirits and add instant winter colour. Cyclamen, pansies, primroses, violas and polyanthus are traditional favourites and will all flower in mild spells right through to early spring. Plant them en masse in containers and baskets to maximise the effect when they flower.
However, you needn’t just stick to bedding plants to create colourful displays. Evergreen grasses (particularly varieties of Carex), perennials such as Heuchera, spring bulbs, evergreen ferns (Hart’s-tongue and the common polypody are ideal), evergreen herbs including rosemary, sage and lavender, along with tidy shrubs such as box and bay, which have interesting foliage, can be combined in all manner of creative contemporary displays to introduce a fresh look to your garden. This needn’t be as expensive as it sounds. Choose carefully and you can plant the whole lot out in the outdoors at more appropriate spacing when spring arrives.
For best results, don’t plant in compost you’ve used before. Instead use new compost that is rich in nutrients and also pest and disease-free. Also remember that plants grow very little in winter, so make sure you start with good-sized plants and don’t be afraid to cram them in closer than normal for overall impact. And don’t forget to position containers where they’ll get as much daylight as possible.
Trees and shrubs
Many trees and shrubs have brilliant bark or colourful flowers and are now – or soon will be – at their best. The Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) is a small, hardworking garden tree with dainty white flowers in spring and bright autumn colour. Its bare burgundy-coloured branches, lit by the winter sun, are simply stunning.
Snakebark maples are cherished for their unusual bark that resembles silky snakeskin. There are lots to choose from although Acer capillipes and ‘Silver Vein’, which have shivery, silver streaks, are particular personal favourites. With a striped snakebark maple, you get a lot more for your money, too – a sculptural shape and the unusual leaves turn fiery reddish-orange in autumn.
Birches have beautiful bark, particularly noticeable in winter. Chalk-white paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and Betula ‘Doorenbos’ are popular but big, so site them carefully – both look great as single specimens in large lawns. For small gardens, choose dome-shaped Betula ‘Youngii’, which grows no bigger than eight metres tall. Not all birch bark is white. The Chinese red birch is orange-red, Betula ‘Parkwood’ is dark purple with little white bands, and Betula ‘Mount Zao’ has dark purple and orange, peeling bark.
The trunk of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) looks like it’s been sculpted by film character Edward Scissorhands – ragged ribbons of cinnamon bark peel back to reveal a gorgeous burnt orange colour underneath. Perfect for tiny gardens, the leaves colour up nicely in autumn, too.
After the leaves have fallen, some shrub stems have a lot to offer. White-stemmed bramble is a favourite. It needs plenty of room to spread, but the big arching shoots are beautiful, resembling ghostly tinsel. ‘Goldenvale’ has golden foliage through spring and summer; complement it with heathers and snowdrops or crocus.
The dogwoods are really stunning, especially if grown in groups. Try Cornus ‘Flaviramea’ for lively yellow-green stems, Cornus ‘Winter Beauty’ for orange-yellow and Cornus ‘Siberica’ for bright scarlet. To encourage vivid colour every year, prune the shoots back hard to around 20-30cm from the ground in early spring.
Shrubs bring ‘body’ to borders and most need little maintenance once established. We should plant more in our gardens. I’m not talking about a return to dreary 1970s borders with rows of sad shrubs; instead, mix them with roses, bulbs and perennials to perk up dull days.
Evergreen shrubs are needed to bring year-round structure to a planting scheme and come into their own during winter when there’s little colour around. Choose Choisya ‘Sundance’, Escallonia ‘Gold Ellen’ or squat Santolina ‘Lemon Fizz’ for rich golden colours. Fancy some silver? Try Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’, Olearia x haastii ‘Daisy Bush’ or classic lavender. For purple foliage try tidy Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’. There are lots of variegated evergreens, too, from the big yellow spotted laurel to small multi-coloured hebes and Euonymus.
Early flowering evergreens are particularly good for winter colour. Try Viburnum ‘Gwenllian’ or ‘Eve Price’, Skimmia ‘Rubella’ or ‘Kew Green’ and for difficult dry shade, golden Mahonia ‘Apollo’. Many scented shrubs will soon be at their best. Favourites include sweetsmelling Sarcococca ‘Christmas Box’, Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ (Bodnant viburnum), Viburnum x burkwoodii or much-loved Daphne ‘Jacqueline Postill’. If you have space, try the wintersweet Chimonanthus praecox, whose buttercup yellow bell-shaped flowers will perfume the garden and surrounding area with their scent between January and March.
Using shrubs in the garden
The most common mistake is to plant big shrubs in narrow borders. Any shrub that grows to 1.82 metres in height will probably spread a similar distance widthways. Be generous and extend really narrow borders with an edging iron if you can, so plants have room to stretch out.
With shrubs, a little always goes a long way, so don’t pack in too many or you’ll be forever pruning them back; you’ll also lessen the impact of a few key specimens. In mixed borders, one or two larger types – one evergreen, one deciduous – grouped together at the back every four to six metres or so, is plenty. Arrange shorter shrubs such as Cotoneaster ‘Fishbone’ and Artemisia for sunny spots, or Viburnum davidii and Skimmia for semi-shade. Put these down in the front alongside perennials, bulbs and ornamental grasses.
You paint your house in numerous shades of colour, so why not paint your garden as an easy way to add a burst of colour? Think about using colour on trelliswork, sheds, furniture, plant supports, decking and pots. With paint, the possibilities for introducing a touch of colour are endless. Although bright colours will stand out, they can be unintentionally dominant. Instead, be sympathetic to the natural setting of a garden and take inspiration from nature, using the muted, subtle tones of natural stone, water, flowers and leaves.
If you want to make a space feel bigger, use light colours. If you want to make it smaller or more intimate, pick darker ones. In an enclosed courtyard, it is best to use lighter shades or limit a darker colour to one boundary to stop the space from feeling claustrophobic.
Do remember to get tester pots of your favourite colours and try before you buy; paint charts can often be misleading. Preparation is key – always use a primer or sealer and the right undercoat. Walls might need treating with a fungicide solution to ensure a good finish.
Photographs: Elke Borkowski/Gap Photos; Marianne Majerus/MMGI
All prices and stockists correct at time of publishing.