Never say die

The winter garden has a silvery glamour to it, with its bare branches and frost-covered stems. Yet the joy of its best-performing plants is often forgotten, says Kim Wilde. So, if you’ve never given a thought to your garden in the cold months, here’s where to start.

The secret of the successful winter garden lies in its structure – the patterns created by paths and walls, the shapes of shrubs, the shadows of evergreens and the silhouettes of trunks and twisted branches. As Sir Roy Strong, the historian and designer, writes: “What fascinates me about the garden in winter is that it is the true test of garden design, for without foliage and shrubs a garden stands or falls for its compositional value on clipped evergreens, evergreen trees and shrubs, and the exact placing of statuary, urns and gazebos.”

Scent, too, plays a surprising role in luring you into the winter scene. I remember confronting the spicy fragrance of Hamamelis mollis for the first time – it was astonishing. I’d not yet learned of the exquisite scents that winter has to offer, such as the lily of the valley fragrance of Mahonia japonica , the vanilla of Sarcococca confusa , or the honey-scented crocus.

Winter colour emerges after the flamboyant autumn displays, predominantly in subtle shades of green and brown. But on closer inspection, a palette of bright yellows (the golden leaves of Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’), flashy reds (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ stems) and blues (Picea pungens ‘Koster’) delight and surprise. Black and white, too, can be used to dramatic effect: white glowing luminously from the ghostly trunks of birch trees and in snowdrops and frost; black in the silhouettes of trees, dark shadows and the inky surfaces of ponds.

The challenge in creating winter gardens is, in the words of Vita Sackville West, to “see as much beauty in the steel-line engravings of winter as in the watercolours of spring or the oil paintings of summer”.

When choosing plants for a winter garden, make sure your design takes into account the following four categories: structural (mostly evergreen, such as Taxus baccata ); ground-cover planting (frequently evergreen, such as Mahonia aquifolium ); focal point planting (architectural qualities, or strong form or habit, such as Stipa gigantea ); and ornamental planting (often deciduous and ranging from herbaceous plants, bulbs or annuals to shrubs and trees; for example, Prunus subhirtella autumnalis ).

Structural planting

Structural plants tend to be evergreen, and the percentage of such planting depends on the garden you’re after – from the predominantly evergreen Japanese style to the herbaceous-dominated cottage garden, which has a discernible dormant period.

Of the large evergreen hedges to choose from, Taxus baccata (yew) is the most effective. It grows much faster than is generally thought, making a large, formal hedge that can be trained into almost any shape. This low-maintenance plant will thrive in any aspect, and can be planted now in well-drained soil (adding plenty of well-rotted organic material). When planting, trim any long and straggly side shoots, but leave the leaders uncut until the hedge reaches the required height. Thereafter, an established hedge should need trimming only in late summer. Plant 60cm apart.

Ilex aquifolium (common holly) has spiky, shiny, dark, evergreen leaves and red berries. It is a good hedging plant that will do well in a shady position, and is effective as a protective screen against both wind and intruders. Hollies can be planted in any soil from autumn to mid-spring, as long as there is not a frost and the soil is not waterlogged. Plant 45cm apart.

Thuja plicata (western red cedar) is a fast-growing conifer that does well in shade and has foliage that smells of pineapples when crushed. With regular trimming, it will make an excellent, easily controlled evergreen hedge. Plant 60cm apart.

Evergreen climbers include the indispensable ivies (hedera), which are among the very few evergreen plants that are self-clinging and hardy. If you’re planting against a wall, make sure there is sound brickwork, as its short, adhesive roots can damage old, crumbly bricks and mortar. Hedera colchica ‘Dentata’ will soon cover an unattractive, shady area with glossy, heart-shaped foliage.

Another handy evergreen climber is Euonymous fortunei var radicans ‘Silver Queen’, which will climb up lightly shaded walls, clothing them in white-margined, dark green leaves to a height of up to 6m. It also makes useful ground cover. With its thick, glossy evergreen leaves, Clematis armandii has an exotic appearance, though it can become quite rampant, so give it plenty of room. The rich vanilla-scented flowers in spring are sublime.

Valuable evergreen shrubs include the following: Prunus lusitanica (Portugal laurel), with its glossy green leaves on red stalks and fragrant, white flowers in mid-summer; Prunus laurocerasus (cherry laurel), a vigorous shrub that makes an excellent screen; Viburnum tinus , with its pink buds that open into lacy white flowers from late autumn to March; it gets to about 3m high and wide; Aucuba japonica has handsome, glossy leaves that suit an exotic-style garden. It thrives in sun or shade, and tolerates pollution, but needs male and female plants for an autumn display of red berries.

Winter ground cover

The prime requisite of a good ground-cover plant is to provide a rapid, dense carpet of mostly evergreen foliage or twiggy growth, to suppress weeds and retain moisture in the soil. Evergreen shrubs of domed or spreading form, with dense foliage near the ground, are most suitable and include: Viburnum davidii , which is decorated with iridescent blue fruits throughout winter; Prunus laurocerasus ‘Zabeliana’, with shiny, narrow leaves; and the yew Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’. Smaller evergreen ground-cover plants include Bergenia ‘Sunningdale’, whose leaves turn coppery in winter. Liriope muscari with its strap-like leaves, is tolerant of dry shade, as is Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae, one of the most effective plants for growing beneath trees. One of my favourites for a really well-drained, sunny spot is Iris unguicularis, whose violet-blue flowers really cheer up the winter scene. Take off any leaves that turn brown, so they don’t spoil the display.

Many dwarf or spreading conifers make excellent, low-maintenance ground cover and include Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Carpet’, Juniperus communis ‘Green Carpet’ and Juniperus sabina ‘Tamariscifolia’.

Focal point planting

Deciduous plants with distinctive habits really make their presence known in their leafless state. Think of the tortured and curiously twisted stems of the hazel Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, or the horizontally tiered stems of Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ and Cornus controversa .

Any plant chosen as a focal point needs to have either architectural or sculptural qualities, or a good form or habit, to give it year-round dominance. (But remember: too many focal points will result in a restless planting scheme.) Typical plants include the spiky Phormium tenax , the bold foliage of Mahonia japonica or the strong shapes of Buxus sempervirens clipped into conventional forms such as pyramids, balls or spirals. Yucca gloriosa is impressive, reaching 1.5m or more. It is fiercely spiny, so not ideal if children are about, although the tips can be snipped. Beth Chatto uses the conifers Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’ and the bulkier Cupressus arizonica ‘Pyramidalis’ as exclamation marks in her famous gravel garden.

Ornamental planting

Though this is the least important component of any planting scheme, it’s often what we are drawn to first – we’re so easily seduced by flowers, fruits, berries, foliage and coloured stems. We swoon at the fleeting glamour of winter-flowering bulbs such as Iris reticulata, Galanthus nivalis and Cyclamen coum. Plant these bulbs among ground-cover perennials, or to brighten bare earth under deciduous shrubs. Cornus and salix decorate the winter scene with vibrant coloured stems in shades of green (Salix smithiana), yellow (Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’), red (C. alba ‘Sibirica’), purple (C. alba ‘Kesselringii’), pink (C. sanguinea ‘Winter Beauty’) and orange (Salix alba subsp. vitellina ‘Britzensis’). These plants need to be cut back almost to ground level each spring, or every other spring, to produce large quantities of young shoots for winter.

Other favourites in this category include Rubus cockburnianus, with its ghostly white stems growing to 3m (so not suitable for a very small garden). Rubus phoenicolasius (Japanese wineberry) has brilliant red, hairy stems, as well as edible fruit in August. Cornus mas (Cornelian cherry) is a vigorous shrub or small tree (depending on size). It is grown for its clusters of yellow flowers on bare branches in the dead of winter.

Perennials and grasses provide structure to the winter scene with their brittle skeletons and seed heads, which appear among the dying stems of plants such as monarda, phlomis and eryngium. These last well into the winter and look particularly beautiful in a hoar frost or after snow.

The grasses that best hold their own in winter include Calamagrostis xacutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Cortaderia selloana and Deschampsia cespitosa. Trees with ornamental bark include Acer griseum, with its russet-coloured strips of old bark that peel back to reveal cinnamon-coloured new bark beneath. Other maples with eye-catching bark include Acer pensylvanicum ‘Erythrocladum’ and Acer grosseri var hersii

The chill factor

Botanist Paul Simons on the cunning ruses used by plants to thrive in winter

  1. Pollinating insects are much rarer in cold weather, so it’s crucial they successfully pick up pollen when they land. The stamens of mahonia and berberis flowers actually stroke visiting insects, making sure pollen gets attached.
  2. Dryas octopetala has flowers shaped like satellite dishes, which swivel to follow the sun, trapping solar heat in chilly weather. The warmth invites pollinating insects and helps incubate new seeds.
  3. Taxus baccata (yew) has poisonous leaves containing a hormone which keeps harmful insects that feed on it permanently immature. Because the insects cannot breed, they die out: good news for the yew.
  4. Ilex aquifolium (common holly) grows more spiky leaves towards the bottom of the shrub to keep away animals such as deer. If eaten, it grows even more spikes.
  5. Hedera (ivy) attaches to walls using special roots that turn into anchors and then ooze strong glue. This helps to give it a strong grip during bad weather conditions.
  6. The iridescent blue fruits of Viburnum davidii are there to attract animals. The iridescence is made by a film on the surface of the fruit, which reflects blue light rather like the streaks of an oily film on water. The animals eat the fruit, thus helping to disperse the seed.
  7. It is thought the brilliant red, hairy stems of Rubus phoenicolasius act as warning signal, telling insects and animals to shove off.
  8. Grasses such as Calamagrostis xacutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Cortaderia selloana and Deschampsia cespitosa create a grassy hummock at their base, made of dead old leaves, to insulate themselves from cold. These form a jacket, keeping young shoots warm.