You wouldn’t be alone if you sometimes feel faintly despairing about the state of your winter garden. It’s not just that our gardens are lacking in colour or interesting foliage, so much of our disappointment comes from lack of structure.

Winter Gardens – The Basics

An appealing winter garden has great bone structure

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But your gloom is good news! Winter allows us to see our gardens for what they really are warts and all, so it’s the ideal time for a bit of reckoning.

Spot the gaps

A patio that is a floral-fest in spring and summer often looks desolate and unwelcoming in the cold winter months. And what about your flower borders? Bare earth, bent browning flower stems and not much else? No problem. Scan your garden from left to right and look for gaps where nothing is really happening. What could those bald spots benefit from? Height? Colour? Structure or a combination of all three?

Clean up your act

First off, have a good clean up. Gardens look so much better when they are neat and tidy. Sweep patios, paths and lawns clear of fallen leaves and weed containers, pots and flower beds. Done? Great stuff, let’s move on to more creative improvements.

Introduce focal points

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Mature topiary is an obvious solution but can be expensive. If you’re tight for cash, consider low-cost instant fixes. Any object or plant used with a bit of imagination can give surprising bang for your buck. Self-assembly pergolas, garden arches, benches and obelisks are very affordable and offer instant focal points. Similarly, decorative plant supports or even containers filling bare spots add instant interest, height and texture.  

We’re all used to having flowers in the house, but who says you can’t make your own vases of winter delight? An old galvanised watering can crammed with holly stems, bare twigs sprayed with faux snow or a pair of old wellies stuffed with flowers all create appealing accents placed around the garden. And best of all you can tweak them with seasonal updates throughout the year. 

Winter Garden Plants

Bring on the evergreens

Here’s more good news. Evergreen plants have great foliage, bright berries, beautiful flowers even in winter and some of them are fragrant too. 

From shivering shabby to sublime 

If you’re one of those gardeners who think evergreens are all about conifers and hedging, think again. Evergreen planting is the mainstay of any self-respecting winter garden. They provide formal or informal structure and produce flowers, berries and cones – so now’s the time to embrace them. Here’s a line up of some great shrubs that offer fabulous foliage, flowers and even fragrance to a chilly landscape. 

Flowers in mid-winter 

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Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica

Winter flowering clematis is so uplifting and whilst Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica (H.2.5m x S. 1.5m) might hail from the balmy Balearic Islands, it will surprise you by flowering its socks off from December to January.  Plant in sun or part shade, its creamy flowers speckled with deep claret freckles will make you think summer has come early. 

Spectacular letter-box red flowers for shady gardens

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Camellia x vernalis / Yuletide flowers

Is your garden north-facing or overshadowed by tall buildings? Uncertain that gorgeous winter plants aren’t on the menu for shady spots?  Here’s an unexpected winter treat. Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide (H.3m x 2.5m) is splashed with large letter-box red flowers with sunny golden centres from November to January against smart deep-green polished leaves. In sun or shade, it will do you proud.

Architectural elegance 

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Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ silvered tassels

Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ (H.4m x S. 4m) is a stunning architectural shrub guaranteed to add instant impact in sun or part shade with dark green crimped leaves generously draped with chandeliered silvered tassels from December to February. 

Don’t overlook the old reliables

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Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’

Spindles may be common but they’re good for a reason! Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ (H.1m x 1.5m) is pretty much without fault. Ice-edged smooth apple-green leaves make it a versatile, dependable border shrub, tidy wall climber or pot lover in the sun or semi-shade. With such classy foliage, you’ll be forgiven for not noticing its small creamy flowers in May.

Lush jungle foliage in sun or light shade

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Winter flowers and leaves of Fatsia Japonica

Good old Fatsia japonica! (H.4m x S.4m) Huzzah! Don’t be put by its eventual size, it’s not just for large gardens since growing it in a pot will restrict its size and spread. 

Huge, lush, jungly leaves are arguably more tempting than the creamy flower spikes in autumn. But don’t worry, the bees will enjoy them even if you don’t.

Fiery foliage and bright red berries

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Red berries of Nandina domestica covered with snow

Nandina domestica (H.1.5m 1.5m) also known as Sacred bamboo, throws out starry white flowers in July, but really comes into its own when the first frosts nip. Both the evergreen bright green leaves and red berries flush fiery red in autumn and look sensational etched in frost. It’s uncomplaining too, happy in any average soil and tolerant of full and partial shade as well as sunny spots. P.S. In ultra-cold areas it may need winter protection.

Appealing ground-cover in gloomy places

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Japanese Spurge or Pachysandra terminalis

Difficult shade has never looked so good when planted with Japanese Spurge. Pachysandra terminalis (H.20cm x S.1m) knows just what to do in any reasonable, moist soil. Deeply-lobed fresh green leaves make rosettes of fast-spreading evergreen matting in places other plants struggle to grow.   

Strawberries in winter

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Fruits of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)

Strawberries and cream are summer treats, right? Arbutus unedo, (Strawberry tree, (H.8m. x S.8m) gives you the winter version with strawberry-like fruits that look fabulous dusted with snow. Sadly, they’re bitter-tasting but you can forgive this tiny flaw.  Lily-of-the-valley type snow-white flowers follow the berries from November. It’s a slow-growing, spreading tree that looks good 365 days a year. Plus, it offers tactile peeling brown bark, evergreen bay-tree-like leaves and provides a rich food source for birds.

Classical focal planting

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Blooming Viburnum Tinus flowers

Viburnum Tinus ‘French White(H.3m x S.3m) is the shrub for you if you’re seeking formal elegance. Masses of white flowers flushed delicate pink explode from December to April followed by blackberries coupled with glossy leaves all year round. Its flowers last well in a vase indoors or outdoors too.

Feeling inspired? Scan your garden again. Decide what you can plant and where, grab a spade and welcome your new arrivals, revelling in the happy thought that next winter your garden is going to look absolutely fabulous.

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