The garden can be a beautiful place in winter: small, dainty, often fragrant flowers stud bare branches, and variegated evergreens gleam in the watery sunshine. In summer such subtleties would be lost, overwhelmed by massed foliage and bigger, brighter blossoms.
Witch-hazels are among the most enchanting and colourful of winter-flowering shrubs. They tolerate shade well and look stunning against a dark background. The spidery, fragrant flowers are usually yellow, although there are varieties with reddish or orange flowers. Also fragrant are some of the fine deciduous viburnums such as V. x bodnantense, whose pink flowers are produced throughout winter. Viburnum tinus is evergreen and reliably produces clusters of pinkish-white flowers from November through to spring. For sunshine-yellow flowers, look to Mahonia lomariifolia and the hybrid M. x media ‘Charity’. The large flower heads and bold, rather spiny, evergreen foliage, often tinged with red, make them eye-catching.
Frost sprinkles a special magic over evergreens, and the garden can often look especially beautiful on a crisp, cold day. This is Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifloium), an evergreen with large, bold leaves which often turn red or purple in winter.
Use walls wisely
Walls offer protection and shelter to shrubs such as the silk-tassel bush, Garrya elliptica, with its long pendant catkins of silvery grey and glossy evergreen foliage. Winter jasmine, Jasminium nudiflorum, has lax green stems which are smothered with yellow flowers in winter. It will need tying in, but can also be supported by other plants such as pyracanthus.
Pyracanthus also have beauty at this time of year, with evergreen foliage and persistent red, orange or even yellow berries. This paragon among wall shrubs tolerates hard pruning and can be trained close to house walls. Japanese quinces (Chaenomeles), are also ideal for growing near walls. They lose their leaves in winter but will usually flower in February, or even January in mild areas.
There are some climbers which you can plant to brighten winter days. The most reliable are the tough ivies, which carry berries in winter. Look for ones with variegated foliage. A few take on richer tints in winter. Clematis cirrhosa is evergreen and produces clusters of dainty, pale yellow flowers. Position it on a south or south-west facing wall.
The Christmas rose (Helleboros niger) braves the worst of the weather and produces stunning white flowers in the depths of winter.
On the ground
Prostrate Cotoneaster dammeri provides pleasant green ground cover. Later in the year it will be smothered with bee-attracting flowers followed by berries. For something brighter, try a variegated euonymus such as Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’ or the winter-flowering heather, Erica carnea, and its many varieties. Unlike most heathers, Erica carnea tolerates alkaline soil. Smothered in bloom from November to May, varieties come with flowers of white and all shades of pink. There are others with handsome bronze-tinted or golden foliage that will further enrich the winter garden.
Bulbs are obvious candidates for winter colour and snowdrops are the earliest to flower. Following on in February come the cheery yellow winter aconites and the first of the crocuses, including Crocus tommasinianus. Like all crocuses, it flowers best in sun, so choose an open or very lightly shaded position.
No discussion of winter flowers would be complete without mentioning the hellebores. Earliest to flower is the white Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, but only slightly later comes the Lenten rose, H. orientalis. Its flowers come in a fascinating range of colours: from creams and greens to pinks and purples. Hellebores delight in shady, moist, woodland conditions and are best left to flourish undisturbed.
Snowdrops are one of the most welcome sights this month though in severe winters or cold areas they may not flower until later. They continue flowering until early spring.
After leaf fall the stems and bark of a number of woody plants come into their own. Silver birch stems are well known, but look to the maples for richer colours. The snake-bark maples and the peeling, reddish-brown bark of Acer griseum can be best appreciated once the foliage has gone. Arbutus are evergreen but their cinnamon-coloured bark and elegant form make them striking in winter.
Trees with colourful bark, like Arbutus x andrachnoides with a peeling, reddish-brown trunk, are especially appreciated in winter when they can become a focal point.
The bright bark colour of some shrubs can be encouraged by coppicing or hard annual pruning in spring. The red-stemmed dogwoods are the most popular and look particularly good if planted in combination with the yellowish-green stems of another dogwood, Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’. The willow Salix alba vitellina ‘Britzensis’ has orange stems and can be coppiced in a similar way.
Hollies are at their best in winter, and in most years the berries on female plants should still be in good condition in January; in hard winters the birds may strip them early.