Jane Moore picks her favourite structural shrubs for interest in mid-winter
It is a mistake often made in gardening circles to think that a good looking winter garden should be stuffed full of evergreens. Not so, dear reader, making your garden look good through the long dark days of winter does not mean you need to furiously plant those ever unchanging dark green blobs of evergreens.
While it’s true that a garden full of evergreens is highly architectural it is also a bit boring. That’s not to say that evergreens don’t have their place but it’s important not to go too overboard.
So let’s not beat about the proverbial bush, evergreen or otherwise. What we’re looking for in the winter garden shrub is fragrance, shape and colour plus a liberal helping of fortitude, strength and sturdiness. We’ll be lucky to find all of that in a humble shrub but we will find some of it, fear not. Of course it’s entirely up to you to decide what are the most important attributes for your garden; all I can do is extol their virtues in much the same way as a green-fingered Cilla Black suggesting your prospective blind dates or, for younger readers, a gardening version of Tinder.
There is nothing that beats a lovely whiff as you waltz about the winter garden. Scent transports you to another place as you close your eyes and breathe it in, helping to sweeten the freezing, dark and short days. My favourite all-time plant is the winter sweet or chimonanthus praecox with its sturdy wax-like flowers of sunny spring-yellow. The fragrance is simply delicious, surprisingly strong and it flowers in January, just when you need it most. It’s a big grower eventually and you will wait a few years for it to flower so it’s not for the faint-hearted or impatient gardener but oh it’s so worth the wait.
Those that need a speedier fix of scent should pick a daphne and my favourite is daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill as not only is it one of the best of all fragrant flowering shrubs, but it also has a nice rather upright habit to about 2m (6ft), which is ideal for small gardens. Add to that rosy red buds opening to large white flowers and you have an impressive winter display among the evergreen foliage. Oh and then there’s the fragrance, which can be almost intoxicating. lonicera fragrantissima
Last but by no means least is the humble honeysuckle. The winter honeysuckles are not great lookers, in fact they’re a bit plain and shrubby but they are reliably fragrant and flower unfailingly, attracting bumble bees and gardeners to their scent every January. My favourite is the lonicera fragrantissima which is good for a spot by the back door where it can be kept clipped into shape all summer ready to knock your socks off in winter.
It may surprise you but there are a lot of plants out there to choose from that are guaranteed to give you spectacular colour in deepest, darkest winter. To give you just a handful of my favourites is downright difficult but one shrub I would never be without is good old cornus alba Westonbirt with its brilliant red stems lighting up the whole garden. Plant boldly in stands of several shrubs if you have space. You won’t regret it. In the smaller garden go for single plants combined with hellebores and snowdrops. Other cornus are also good value, especially Midwinter Fire and its kin, but if you only have room for one, take my advice and make it Westonbirt.
A close second on my must-have list is the lovely witch hazel or hamamelis, an ethereal lovely with strange ribbon-like flowers in shades of yellow, orange or fiery red depending on the variety. It’s elegantly slow growing, making 12ft (4m) eventually, often has spectacular autumn colour and there are lots to choose from, many with Awards of Garden Merit from the RHS. I love the pale yellow Pallida as well as the widely available Arnold Promise. For orange flowers choose Jelena or Diane. The yellow flame of witch hazel – hamamelis
Mahonia, while not a favourite of my assistant Anna, definitely does it for me with its sunny winter flowers and strong evergreen leaves. I also love the somewhat Japanese looks with twisted branches and shiny holly-like leaflets.
Again there are lots to choose from including many with AGMs such as Buckland, Lionel Fortescue and Winter Sun which describes itself perfectly.
For all that I have decried the evergreen blobs earlier on; no garden is complete without a blob or two to set other things off against. Dark globes of clipped yew and the brighter greens of box hedging and topiary are invaluable for providing a backdrop to winter colours such as red dogwoods, hellebores, snowdrops and so on. But there are more to evergreens than these. I have a soft spot for the Christmas box or sarcococca which comes in various varieties, all of them evergreen, all of them with fragrant winter flowers and all of them a perfect mound of shiny evergreenery.
Second on the list is another Daphne D. laureola or the spurge laurel has rich evergreen leaves a lovely mounded habit and small but bright lime green flowers in the depths of winter. Perhaps best of all it will happily grow in the shadiest corner and in dry soil. Yes it’s a must have.
Finally, having been a bit sniffy about heathers for perhaps the best part of two decades, I have come to appreciate them lately. In the right spot the gentle hummocks of evergreen foliage topped with soft purple, pink or white flowers are just the thing to brighten the winter garden. Heathers also look great with the greys and golds of paving and walling which makes them perfect for courtyard gardens and container gardening. Red dogwood stems against the snow
Granted you have more choice if your soil is light sandy and acidic which Bath is decidedly not, but you can still grow some good varieties. Look for erica carnea and erica x darleyensis as these are the most tolerant and run the shears or hedge trimmer over them every spring to keep things neat.
Jane Moore is the award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel.