As I filled up the bird feeders yesterday, I noticed the intense green of the dogwood stems contrasted against the fence, the first winter clematis flowers emerging and a trace of witch hazel scent on the breeze. Such tiny marvels dispel the winter gloom and remind us of the uplifting power of nature. And while the garden may seem to enter a gloomy sleep from November onwards, just a few changes can add winter interest and entice you out into the fresh air, even on the murkiest of days.
In small gardens like mine, compact shrubs such as dogwood, sweet box, pittosporum and rosemary can be used to create structure that will come into its own when the summer flowers have faded. In the border, I prune the Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ close to the ground in late spring to make room for the developing perennials, but by the end of autumn the new green stems have regrown and are ready to carry the border through the winter. Other shrubs for spectacular winter colour include the white stems of Rubus cockburnianus, dark purple Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’, Cornus alba ‘Eglantissima’ with its variegated foliage and my personal favourite, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’.
Midwinter Fire Dogwood
Sweet box (Sarcococca) can be clipped into compact shapes that, like box (Buxus sempervirens) and Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’, are simply background fillers in summer, but become the bones of a garden in winter. In the same way, the rosemary hedge that trisects the front garden is eclipsed by tulips and daffodils in spring, waves of Lychnis coronaria during summer and white Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’) in autumn. But once the last anemone flowers fall, the lines of the rosemary hedge lend the garden structure and interest. Evergreen hedges significantly increase the geometry of a garden, but individual clipped evergreen shrubs can be used in smaller spaces and repeated throughout borders or containers to create rhythm and draw the eye through the garden in winter.
In summer, when the garden is awash with dahlias, zinnias, calendula, rudbeckia, lavender and roses, the abundance of nature makes you glad to be alive. However, a single winter bloom in the depths of January also evokes powerful feeling of joy in a season where flowers are precious and rare. I planted winter clematis (Clematis cirrhosa ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Freckles’) up the apple espalier posts near the patio window so the flowers spill over the fence and can be seen from the dining room window. Other winter climbers that light up a dull spot near the house include Clematis napaulensis, Clematis urophylla ‘Winter Beauty’ and winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), a cheerful wall shrub that thrives in shadier spots.
Our witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’) are in containers as we have run out of space for trees in the ground and they prefer neutral to acid conditions, so with our alkaline soil they are healthier in ericaceous soil-based compost in pots. During January and February, we bring the witch hazel containers onto the patio so the furled orange-peel flowers can be seen from the windows and the delicate scent appreciated as we potter along the garden path. Hellebores are another wonderful addition to winter gardens, from the purity of the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) to the soft pinks, reds, greens and blacks of the Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybrida).
As well as witch hazel, winter clematis and sweet box, other winter flowering plants that add spicy scent to a winter garden include edgeworthia, winter honeysuckle, viburnum and mahonia. These shrubs work well at the back of a border surrounded by spring and summer perennials, with early bulbs like snowdrops and crocus to create ground cover interest throughout January and February. Smaller choices for winter scent in pots close to the house include Coronilla glauca ‘Citrina’ and Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ - two compact evergreen shrubs with beautifully scented flowers.
Just adding a couple of compact structural evergreens, some shrubs with vibrant stems and a few fragrant flowers can make a real difference to the garden, meaning you won’t need to wait until the spring bulbs emerge for a good reason to get out and enjoy the winter sun.
Nic Wilson, Writer and Garden Designer