Winter tends to be thought of as a time when gardens go to sleep. Trees and shrubs lose their leaves, perennials die back to ground level, and bulbs are dormant below ground. Evergreens may keep their leaves all year round, but they don’t do anything interesting in the winter, do they? And as for flowers, you’re unlikely to see any until the snowdrops pop up in early spring. Well, actually…
Flowers in Winter
With careful planning, it’s possible to have plants in flower all the way through what we refer to as ‘the dormant season’. There are a range of shrubs that flower in winter, and surprisingly, many of them are deciduous. Flowers tend to be smaller and less showy than summer blooms, but they stand out more against bare branches. What’s more, winter flowers tend to be strongly scented. Witch hazel (Hamamelis), a graceful deciduous shrub, produces striking, spidery flowers in yellows, oranges or reds in January and February. Winter sweet (Chimonanthus) has fragrant yellow flowers from December to February. And winter honeysuckle (Lonicera) has highly scented white flowers from December to March.
Viburnum x bodnantense makes a large, bushy shrub with attractive mid-green leaves. It has clusters of fragrant pink flowers intermittently throughout the winter.
Winter flowering evergreen shrubs include Mahonia; the bright yellow flowers of which are followed by dark berries, daphne and sweet box. All are high scented.
The appeal of bark & stems
Trees with decorative bark make striking features in the winter, when their colours and textures are more visible.
Many varieties of Dogwoods (Cornus) have richly coloured stems in yellow, orange, red or black. In the summer, these are hidden, but when the leaves drop off, they shine out and make a striking feature in the garden. Many willows (Salix) also have brightly coloured stems (willows are known as large trees, but there are varieties that are much smaller). For both willows and dogwoods, cutting some, or all of the stems back to ground level in spring enhances the effect (it’s the new growth that carries the colour).
And then there are trees and shrubs that produce attractive berries, many of which can last well into the winter.
In winter, the bare branches of trees and shrubs make for interesting structures in their own right, even without attractive flowers, berries or bark. Evergreens have a more solid presence, and those that have been shaped into topiary decorate the winter garden with their architectural shapes.
Autumn is the perfect time to plant new shrubs and trees, because the soil is moist, and still warm enough to allow roots to establish. What’s more, many are available ‘bare-rooted’ at a much lower price than potted specimens. Deciduous bare-rooted trees and shrubs can be planted any time throughout the autumn and winter.
At ground level, flowers are scarce in the winter, and those plants that do produce them, such as hellebores, reticulata irises and cyclamen, are valuable.
Winters in the UK are long, wet and cold, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy our gardens. And it won’t be long before bulbs come into flower, starting early on with snowdrops and crocus, then the various types of daffodil, and on to the tulips; when we’ll know that summer is almost here.