Make the most of these versatile and colourful winter plants. Val Bourne explains which to choose and how to use them.
Winter brings shorter days and colder temperatures and many plants retreat underground, or drop their leaves in order to survive. As a result much of the garden looks bare, like a finely worked charcoal sketch featuring shape and contour alone. Any hard landscaping, whether it’s a brick path, an area of paving, stone wall or steps, comes into focus as the sun gets a little lower day by day.
The only solid blocks of deep colour come from evergreen foliage and these can offer privacy, provide shelter for insects and birds and some will even berry and fruit. Those blocks of green lift the spirits, whether it’s tightly clipped box balls, cylinders of yew, a well-clothed shrub, an evergreen hedge or screen. And even tiny gardens can include a touch of green magic by containerising small evergreen shrubs supported by winter hardy ferns and grasses.
Create an evergreen backbone
Evergreens offer the perfect solution if you need a year-round private boundary. English yew (Taxus baccata) takes time to make a fine hedge, but only needs trimming once a year in August. You can get a reasonable-sized hedge within eight years if you start off with pot-grown, foot-high yew plants and enrich the soil.
For structure throughout the year, one of the best evergreens is the winter-flowering Viburnum tinus, because this will grow in shade making a shoulder-high roundel. Good forms include ‘Gwenllian’, which is faster growing than many, with pink buds that open to produce unscented white flowers. Also flowering in winter, the Christmas box, Sarcococca confusa, has shiny green foliage and flowers with a heady lily scent, or you could use a skimmia such as ‘Kew Green’. This sweetly fragrant small evergreen bears conical heads of long-lasting buds that finally open to cream flowers. Sarcococcas and skimmias are small enough for containers.
Some evergreens come into their own in frost; Viburnum davidii has leathery green foliage etched in deep veins that show up well in winter, along with the black berries. The frilly-edged climbing English ivy, Hedera helix ‘Parsley Crested’, picks up a silver-edge in frost, or you could use a ground-hugging green ivy such as ‘Ivalace’.
Your green oasis could also contain the rusty bristled soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) and the rugged Epimedium perralderianum, which has wiry stems topped with heart-shaped leaves. Add Daphne laureola, for its rich green rosettes and lime green winter flowers, along with the winter-flowering Vinca difformis ‘Jenny Pym’. And if you have a sunny south-facing spot, ceonothus ‘Concha’ has superb evergreen foliage. Its red-tipped buds are followed by sky-blue flowers in early summer.
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