If the past winter has taught me anything, it’s that there’s an essential need for evergreen’s in the garden. I’m mostly a herbaceous plant man, but this has the distinct disadvantage in that during the winter, when everything’s died back, I’m left with little other than a brown and barren looking flowerbed. Conversely, in a few of my client’s gardens, there’s green throughout the year because they’ve chosen to avoid flowers and embrace foliage, allowing their little retreat to have signs of life no matter the weather.
Evergreen’s can be important for structure, in addition to providing year-round colour, so if you’re heading out to get a few new plants, here’s some ideas for great plants to get.
Though I’m not a huge fan of the Mexican orange blossom, it’s hard not to see it’s advantages. Choisya’s come in a range of varieties, offering golden and dark green hues to the garden. Clusters of small white flowers can appear throughout the year depending on the variety you have, and if you’re not a fan of the blooms – like me – you can simply keep the shrubs pruned back.
This great little plant forms a carpet of brownish purplish foliage that’s perfect for growing towards the front of a border. Throughout most of the year, it’s the foliage that offers added interest and colour to the surroundings, and it’s ideal for covering large patches of barren ground during the winter. An added delight is the eruption of flower spikes in the spring, each of which is covered with vibrant blue flowers.
Euonymous comes in a vast array of varieties, both in leaf colour and growing structure. From dark green shrubby bushes, to variegated ground creepers, eunoymous can be great additions to the garden. Using variegated species can help bring light to shadier patches of your garden, whilst using shrub forms offers the chance to create a great backdrop for seasonal plants to grow against.
4. Aucuba japonica
If you’re looking for the perfect plant to grow up the side of your playhouse, then aucuba japonica is ideal. This beautiful variegated and evergreen shrub grows in a huge range of conditions, making it ideal for any garden. It’s extremely reliable for its colour, offers large shiny green leaves that are splattered with golden specks and will become covered in bright red seed pods for added interest.
I’m a huge fan of heucheras for so many reasons; they’re diversity for sun and shade, their beautiful flower spikes, their range of foliage colours, their versatility for pots and borders, and their ability to offer added colour throughout the winter months. Whilst they won’t look as vibrant as they do throughout the growing seasons, heacheras are fantastic in the winter for breaking up the ground, especially in a herbaceous border. They’ll grow around the year without very little maintenance, making them an ideal plant to provide ease and colour to the garden.
You know how, on January 18th, I wrote that post welcoming snow? Well, I’m totally over it. Snow can be a good thing for the garden, and it puts plants into a proper hibernation so that they can burst into thriving life when warm weather appears. The problem is….we haven’t had any warm weather. It’s almost the end of March, the sun has disappeared from the sky and the Arctic seems to have extended her claws downwards and has Britain firmly in her grasp. Are we in an Ice Age? Has Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’ movie become true?
My broad beans, egged-on by their warm windowsill temperature, have become leggy and can’t be put out until some of this bitter cold has disappeared, and as such, will probably be a dead loss. I several pots of seeds which, luckily, have done nothing, but I’m hoping that the cold hasn’t actually killed them. It’s around this time that I begin wishing I had a beautiful log cabin with roaring fire to ensconce myself in and forget about the woes of winter whilst dreaming of the spring sunshine and pottering around amongst the seed beds.
So, what can we do if sowing is not an option?
I know that the last place you probably want to be is outside in the freezing cold, but if you want to work up a sweat, doing some soil preparation in this weather is a good idea. Adding manure to the soil in frozen temperatures can be extremely helpful as the frosts will break down the organic material and help it seep into the soil. Uncovering covered areas of garden that you want to plant later in the year can also be a good idea. I pulled the huge articulated lorry tarp off my long row of allotment beds a couple of weeks ago and dug the soil over. Not only can the cold get in and help break down the material, but any weed seeds and pests that may have been hiding will helpfully be killed off by plummeting temperatures. You may find that friendly critters, such as frogs and toads, have taken up residence under these covered areas, so be sure to move them somewhere else frost free.
If you forgot to split plants or transfer shrubs last autumn, this long spell of cold has given you a little bit of extra time. Most things haven’t yet started growing, and even if new foliage has been produced, it’ll only be a tiny amount.
If you really need to move that shrub or split those perennials before the spring gets going, do so quickly. Plants won’t have an extended time to settle as they would in the autumn, so water consistently to ensure they get a good start this year. I have a couple of huge clumps of sedums that need splitting, so I’ll be doing so over the next few days and getting them in place before we get some warmth.
There’s a few things I didn’t get around to cutting back last autumn – especially the beautiful ‘shrub’ rose that’s outside my back door. I say shrub in inverted commas because it’s 7 foot tall and growing out the back of an escallonia. The spring shoots have grown a couple of inches already, but there’s still time to have a chop back. The berries on my callicarpa (right) are also long gone, so as spring growth hasn’t yet started, now is the ideal time for a quick prune.
At this time of year, birds are often already nesting, so it’s not the ideal time to snip. But, with the extended winter period, it’s the ideal time to do a little bit of garden tidying before the warm weather allows plants to take off.
You might think that snow is a gardener’s worst nightmare, and yes, if it arrives in April when you’ve got thousands of small seedlings on the go, then it’s pretty much devastation wherever you look. However, get it in winter, when it’s actually expected, and snow can be pretty good for the garden.
I love snow. I love awaking and realising that the light streaming through the curtains is different, that is must have snowed overnight. I love looking out the window and seeing the little bird feet and cat paw prints in the fine white power that’s coating every surface. Taking the dog for a walk is a delight, and there’s nothing like curling up with a seed catalogue when there’s snow on the ground to become inspired.
Benefits for the garden
For gardeners there are other benefits too, aside from the real excuse to enjoy vast quantities of hot tea and warm freshly made bread buns. Firstly, a cold spell sends plants into a real dormant phase. You’ll often discover that many plants, including wisteria, lilacs and even roses will produce a really show-stopping cascade of flowers in the spring when winter weather’s been particularly harsh. Rather than attempting some lacklustre growth through the colder parts of the years, plants are sent into real dormancy and shut down. At the first sign of warmer climes they burst into life with vibrancy.
Snow on the ground is also great help when it comes to pests. Harsh winters will result in fewer pests having survived, enabling plants to thrive with even more ferocity. It takes a while for those aphid and mollusc armies to build their numbers after a harsh winter, and it allows us gardeners to get a head start on protecting our plants. 2012 was a horrendous year for growing, and vast amounts of rain have sent the slug and snail populations soaring. You might think you’ve collected and killed all those critters in your garden, but think of all the eggs waiting to hatch. With any luck, frosts and snow will kill some of these off, giving us a slightly better gardening start to 2013.
Invasion of the weeds
But heavy snowfall also offers the chance to take action on those weeds too. Like the gorgeous plants we want to have in our gardens, weeds become stunted by the snowfall and unable to grow. You might not be able to dig out those pesky invaders whilst the ground’s frozen, but as thawing comes, it’s the ideal time to rid the garden of those frozen weeds. A major weed problem that’s currently streaming across the UK is the invasion of Japanese knotweed. This has to be dealt with as soon as it appears because it will soon start to invade your garden, and even your home, if not dealt with. With snow on the ground and a slight lull in the horticulturists season, it’s the perfect time to look up TP Knotweed and prepare for the war against invasion.
It’s true that many plants have to be protected from frost and snow damage, and you should take adequate care to ensure fragile plants survive. But, snow can be a good thing, and it can push your garden to be even more spectacular in the coming year.
Following on from my previous post regarding preparing for winter and starting to think about pots and colour for the colder season, I thought I’d highlight just how beautiful pansies can be. I’m not a huge lover of ornately petalled flowers, and many pansy varieties come with multiple petals, frills and ruffles which I could well live without. However, with the extroadinary range of varieties available, there are some truly lovely species whatever your passion, and they make ideal planting for your winter garden.
If you’re going to plant up pansy pots, then do so in style. Don’t buy four or six plug plants from your local DIY centre and expect them to thrive, or look incredibly amazing. For real impact you must ensure that you buy winter flowering varieties and plant them in swathes. These small flowers can often become lost in the border and so planting in pots is ideal, especially as you can move them around depending on where colour is most needed.
Harriet Rycroft’s Whichford pottery blog is a great place for inspiration, and her ‘Still busy planting pots for winter/spring‘ and ‘Preoccupations with ice and water‘ posts are ideal if you want to get some ideas for planting. You’ll find many great ideas for winter pots, whilst also being shown not to despair when you awake on those frosty mornings and find that your pansies have all but shrivelled away.
As I said before, I’m not one for ornate flowers, but Thompson & Morgan have a great new winter pansy variety; Pansy ‘Plentiful’ F1 hybrid which comes in pastel violets, yellows and whites. Meanwhile, JParker’s Viola Yellow Pink Wings, Pansy Cascadiz Pink/White and Pansy Cascadiz Orange won’t fail you on those early spring days when you need something to cheer your grey morning. And, if you start to think about your plug plants now, you can ensure that your pots are planted and ready to go before the season truly starts to chill.
Britain’s currently in the midst of the hottest weather it’s had all summer, so mentioning Christmas might bring horror to your ears. However, as honeysuckles scramble upwards, lavender bustles with bees and heleniums throw up bud after bud to the brazen sun, us gardeners need to start thinking about the looming seasons and what’s to come. Gardening, after all, is all about forethought and planning what delicate foliage, flowers and berries will catch our eyes as the month’s progress.
At this time of year, whilst taking every care to keep plants watered and deadheaded, it’s time to consider making your winter garden as colourful as possible. There are many ideal plants for the colder times of year, and I like to utilise pots to make the best show. My garden is largely herbaceous, so come the winter months my plants have, for the most part, receded underground to protect themselves until warmer climes arrive again. Planting into the border on top of existing perennials isn’t always the best idea, so I like to utilise a variety of planters and containers around the garden, drawing the eye from one spot of colour to the next.
Topiary is great in gardens all year round, but I really feel that it comes into its own during the winter, especially on those frosty and misty mornings when tendrils of ice cling to spheres, cones or decadently created topiary peacocks. Whilst everything around them is dull, dead or hidden underground, topiary can shine during the winter, bringing a much needed vitality to the garden. Rattan or wooden planters (as shown to the left) are great for keeping topiary, and it means that you can move these living sculptures around the garden throughout the year, ensuring that they’re in the best place to catch your glance. This is particularly important during the winter months when strategically placed pots and containers will draw the eye from one burst of colour to the next.
Though you can have topiary planted on its own, I like to under-plant with a swath of winter flowering pansies to add a clash of colour. Even when wilted on freezing mornings, these plants show their true hardiness as the day progresses and the sun comes up, shedding the ice crystals and bursting into colourful life to add a little flair to any wintery spot. You can buy plug plants now and start growing them on, but it’s not too late to grow your winter flowering stock from seed, ensuring that you have great mounds of colour throughout the drabbest months of the year.
If you’ve had windowsill overflowing with geraniums or lavender this summer (right), then you should also start to think about upcoming planting schemes for winter. Vine weevils have plagued me inEast London, and attempting to grow cyclamen in flowerbeds only serves to feed these pests even more. However, fresh compost and a planter do wonders for keeping these plants thriving. I like to interplant miniature cyclamen with heucheras to provide a welcome mix of hues. Heucheras are one of the my favourite plants for foliage, and they come in a great range of colours, so whether you’re planting out cyclamen of blood red, snowy white or soft pink, there’s always an ideal heuchera to set it off against.
With the summer sun still high, it can be a bit depressing to already be thinking of winter and what’s to come. But, by taking advantage of the warmer season to grow some winter plants and prepare some seasonal planters, you’ll be able to bring some cheering colour to the crisp white days ahead. Garden Trading has a fantastic variety of planters on offer, with something for everyone’s price range, so there’s no need for your winter garden to look drab and dreary this year.
Believe it or not, we’re still in the month of winter. Whilst the snow may have receded and temperatures have warmed a little, there are still several weeks until spring officially starts. However, this means nothing for my gardening year as I simply can’t stop myself from sowing far too early as soon as the first glimmers of spring-like weather appear. It was the same when I was a child and kept Australian finches; the onset of a warm day meant that I filled the aviary with nesting boxes and then my poor parents had to foot the heating bill as temperatures plummeted and I turned every radiator on to keep the eggs and chicks viable. So now that the one warm week of February has disappeared, I have windowsills covered in seedlings which cannot be placed outside for fear of frost.
One of the ways that I’ve gotten around this problem in the past is with the help of garden storage in the form of cold frames and miniature greenhouses. Of course, if you decide to germinate your seeds in a heated propagator, then place young plants outside at your peril as it won’t even require a frost to kill off these tender things. However, due to my resistance against the cold (growing up in the middle of the country in an old rectory with nothing but storage heaters will make living in arctic temperatures feel completely normal) I tend to let seeds germinate at their own freewill on the windowsills. The temperature in my home is often more akin to those outside, allowing seeds to germinate in a more naturally heated environment. If you cling to heat like a blanket, then you can sow seeds in a spare room which is rarely used and where the average temperature will be lower. This will ensure that once the seedlings have poked their heads up and you’ve got far too many to keep inside, transferring to an outside and frost free cloche is feasible.
Of course, moving young seedlings is no easy matter and you should wait until there’s a balmy day before even contemplating such an idea. Place seedlings outside for a few days when the weather is good, bringing them inside at night to avoid the severe drops in temperatures which could spell the end of your carefully grown seeds. Once a number of days have past and you’re confident that seedlings have acclimatised to the outside environment, choose a night when temperatures won’t fall too low and place them inside your frost free garden storage area. As long as you have a few nights of relatively warm air in the offing, then the seedlings should acclimatise well and free up all that space on your windowsill for, you’ve guess it, more seeds.
If you’re anything like me, then the slightest rise in temperature results in every possible surface near to a light source being covered in pots and seeds. This is no bad thing, and can get your gardening year off to a great start. By germinating in a low temperature environment that closely simulates the weather outside, you’ll be able to transfer plants to a cold frame more quickly. And, though plants who like warmer weather will take longer to pop up their green shoots, vigorous early year seeds will thrive and allow you to create space for even more wonderful flora.
If you’re looking for the most expensive snowdrop in the world, then I may have just found it. On Thursday 16th February, 2012, Ipswich based Thompson & Morgan bought Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ for a whopping £725. You raise an eyebrow? Well you’ll be even more shocked to discover that this incredible price was for a single bulb of the rare new hybrid. But, why has this variety caused such a bidding furore?
Over the past few years there have been several high prices for snowdrops, with 2011 seeing Galanthus ‘Green Tear’ selling a single bulb for £360. You might ask yourself why on earth these bulbs command such prices. Elizabeth Harrison truly is a rare gem in the snowdrop world, having it’s green ovary and petal markings replaced with vibrant yellow. But it’s cost is not demanded by the hybrid’s variety but by the fact that it is extremely slow to reproduce. This means that it can take decades for enough bulbs to be created to sell commercially, which results in their prices rising to astronomical rates.
Like Thompson & Morgan’s ‘Midnight Mystique’ Black Hyacinth which commanded £50,00 per bulb in 1998, Elizabeth Harrison is set to be in very high demand over the coming years. Midnight Mystique still cannot be produced to meet consumer demand, and you’ll be very lucky if you manage to get your hands on this precious bulb. Through tissue cultures, Thompson & Morgan hope to speed the reproductive process for this snowdrop, allowing them to bring this beautiful specimen to your garden in coming years. Meanwhile, snowdrops are now in full bloom across Britain, and there several top gardens to see snowdrops this month.
Anglesey Abbey Gardens – Cambridge
Amongst 100 acres of garden, you can discover more than 240 varieties of snowdrop, including the rare Galanthus lagodechianus.
Ickworth – Suffolk
Amongst their Oak Walk, Trim Trail and Geraldine’s Walk, Ickworth showcases beautiful shows of snowdrops accompanied by aconites of gold.
Hodsock Priory – Nottinghamshire
Hodoskc Priory has five acres of snowdrop beauty during January and February, including a woodland walk to showcase these beautiful flowers with even great attraction.
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal – Yorkshire
A stunning World Heritage Site, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal combines 323 hectares of countryside all with the January and February show of snowdrops to make you smile.
Nymans – West Sussex
A 20th century garden which has an impressive plant collection, Nymans is a sight for sore eyes in the spring, with snowdrops and early daffodils underplanted amongst magnolias and camellias. Meanwhile, the Wall Garden combines rare hellebore species with a meadow of Galanthus.
This year I was unable to carry out the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in my own backyard as I was visiting my brand new and beautiful niece (I’m biased, but she IS beautiful) in Suffolk. This may have actually been a blessing in disguise as this year, in my garden, I’ve noticed a total lack of birds. It’s not normally a rich ornithological treat by any stretch of the imagination, a few blackbirds, my gardening buddy robin, and wood pigeons as far as the eye can see. In the winter, blackbird numbers swell and they are joined by thrushes, occasional redwings and last year, waxwings, in the crab apple tree next door. But, in the winter of 2011/12, it’s been a relative desert of bird life.
There are a number of reasons why this may be, the largest being that, until now, this winter has been relatively mild. With non-freezing temperatures, many of the delectable insect snacks relied upon by birds have simply not died down in number, allowing birds to stay in the wilder areas and avoid gardens altogether. I live in an area where there is wooded habitat at the end of my road, and with enormous amounts of berries and insects on offer, I’m not surprised that feathered friends haven’t wanted to enter an area of concrete and cats.
I was indulged as a child, living in the remote Suffolk countryside with almost an acre of garden. This meant that I could sit in the living room and look out to the bird table where sights of greenfinches and chaffinches were daily occurrences. The usual ensemble of blackbirds and robins would also show their presence, accompanied by starlings, blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits, owls, sparrowhawks and, on the rare moment, bullfinches. Now, in East London, I’m thrilled if I see a pair of sparrows.
Of course, as I type this, I’ve seen one robin at the bird feeder and a sole blue tit searching frosty foliage for an easy meal. There’s also been an enormous flock of redwings stripping every last berry of Mary’s holly. But this year, even now the cold has descended, there’s been a distinct lack of birds. Have you noticed it? Same as normal? Or are you, like me, desperately waiting for the birds to return?
In my attempt to get in on the 52 Week Salad Challenge, I sowed some ‘Speedy Seeds’ a few weeks ago. The British winter may have arrived with plummeting temperatures and snowy conditions, but that doesn’t mean that growing has to stop. One of the refreshing things about salads is that many varieties can actually be grown when conditions aren’t exactly balmy. And, if you have a windowsill or even a table next to a window, you can germinate and grow some salads throughout the year.
Though I didn’t start this challenge at the year’s outset, almost three weeks ago I sowed my first salads. Because of the rapid turnover of these plants there isn’t need for a rich and loamy soil, and they’ll do perfectly well in a washing up bowl of multi purpose compost. You needn’t drill holes in the bottom, just ensure that you give a light water now and then to keep the soil moist. Don’t water too much as, with no drainage, you could end up with a sludgy mess.
Whilst my ‘Speedy Seeds’ are ready to harvest in 21 days, I wouldn’t say they are quite there yet, even though it’ll have been three weeks on Thursday. However, I can certainly thin the crop out a little and use some of the smaller seedlings as a garnish or a quick nibble as they’re quite delectable even at this tender age. I’m also going to sow another row of seeds to ensure that I have succession throughout the year in the hopes of never having to buy salad ever again!
It’s great to have a little growth around the house, even when there’s still snow on the ground outside. And, try as I might, I just can’t help but have a nibble here and there as I walk by.
I can currently count the number of hard frosts that my small urban patch has had this winter on one hand. I’m craving some freezing weather, sheets a glassy ice on the watering hole and feathery crystals clinging onto foliage. Alas, I’m not sure whether we’re going to get any at all, and whilst you and your delicate perennials may be breathing a sigh of relief, the rest of your garden won’t be. 2011 was a bumper year for fruit, and the explosion of roses, wisteria and forsythia last year certainly had something to do with the enforced dormancy that snowy 2010/11 induced. No such luck for this year I fear, and along with some lacklustre flowering by many plants, I fear that pests will also be out of control due to their numbers not being crippled by winter cold. However, whilst there is much to be concerned about, there is one garden gem offering it’s cheer at the moment; the stunning hellebore.
I often feel that this lovely plant is often forgotten about during the winter months, with gardeners focusing on the colours offered by the early bulbs. Skimmia’s fill porch pots, and winter pansies offer a surprising delicacy, but the hellebore is nowhere to be seen. I recently heard someone say they were a bit boring…boring?! They obviously haven’t been sniffing around my garden then have they!
It’s true, many varieties have green flowers; not the most exciting colour at this time of year. But many, many others offer beautifully hued and architectural flowers which hang like floating lanterns between the stems. Cutting back last years leaves helps to unveil tight buds ready to bloom, and you only have to look at helleborus niger (Christmas Rose) to get a hint of what hellebores offer the garden.
In my own patch, I have a pink variety passed down to me from my mother. It never fails to produce a huge number of blooms every year, and seeds itself like crazy. This is another huge benefit of hellebores in addition to their winter colour; the ease in which they seed. So productive are they, that you can easily propagate and hybridise varieties in your own back garden. All you need is a soft paint bush to collect pollen, dab it on some of the stamens on another plant, let the seeds swell and ripen and then collect and germinate. Hey presto, your own unique strain of hellebores.
Seeding so easily, having almost no maintenance other than cutting back last years foliage in January, and bursting into life when herbaceous borders have long since died away, the hellebore is the one plant that is lifting my mood. We may not have had a winter, but nothing greets the start of the New Year quite like the understated magnificence of the hellebore.