Winter in the garden has its own unique qualities. Light is low, creating stark dramatic scenes and backlit vignettes, droplets suspended on bare skeletal twigs, twinkling with a thousand tiny rainbows. There can be mist, with spectral trees appearing and vanishing, or blankets of snow that hide every detail.
The plants of winter are special – do they anticipate spring or do they seize this opportunity to have the show to themselves? They are endearing too – any plant that pokes its head above the icy parapet earns our affection and inspires our admiration.
In late winter and early spring, there’s a limited variety of plants to grow. Colour, texture and form all need consideration – and imagination. The overall scene is far starker and we need our plants to work well together.
But if you get the planting right you can create a beautiful vista, setting the winter scene and reminding us that cold and bare though it may sometimes seem, winter in our gardens can be the most unique and magical season of all.
More on winter flowers:
Discover carol’s choice of winter flowers, below.
Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’
Most snowdrops have a delicate scent, but this one’s fragrance is exceptional. Its large, rounded white bells have a glorious honeyed perfume. It’s a winner in every way – one of the best for all-round garden value, with a compact yet graceful form. It’s trouble free and increases well. Before planting, dig garden compost and leaf mould into the site, and always plant when in growth (‘in the green’).
Height x Spread: 20cm x 10cm
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Flamingo’
Miscanthus is a deservedly popular ornamental grass with great stature and presence. Its magnificent, long-lasting, plume-like seedheads make an outstanding feature in the winter garden. ‘Flamingo’ is one of the smallest varieties, with silky pink tassels that cascade softly.
H x S: 1.5m x 1m
Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum’
As the clustered orange berry-like fruits disappear (often taken by blackbirds), the foliage starts to appear. One glossy-green arrowhead follows another, from winter into spring, unfurling to reveal ivory ribs and veins. They seem impervious to even the most dreadful weather. The most majestic leaves, from the most mature tubers, have particularly pronounced markings and sensuous, undulating edges.
H x S: 50cm x 50cm
Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’
Every year at Glebe Cottage, come snow or tempest, the breathtaking flowers of this early winter colour dwarf iris appear in the first few weeks of the year. Their colouring is other-worldly, or sub-aquatic – green-grey mixed with marine blue, the petals strikingly marked with darker blue lines (to guide insects to the precious pollen).
H x S: 12cm x 8cm
Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Pallida’
This witch hazel is irresistible and one of the first to flower. Its slender-petalled, pale-lemon blooms often open in early December, and have a wonderful scent – a mix of honey and nutmeg – that carries well. It’s strange to associate cold winter days with such sensual pleasure, but perhaps this is what makes it so appealing? The flowers show up well against a dark backdrop – a yew hedge, ivy covered wall or just a dark fence.
H x S: 3m x 3m
Christmas box, or sweet box, is one of the most desirable winter-flowering shrubs. As temperatures start to fall, it fills the air with sweet perfume, wafting from its small whitish flowers for several months. It will grow just about anywhere except in a bog, isn’t fussy about soil pH, likes shade, and throughout the year is a quiet evergreen presence, with slender pointed leaves.
H x S: 1.5m x 2m
Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’
This daphne fills the winter garden with exquisite perfume, produced by its clusters of pinky-white flowers. Plant it close to the door you use most, so you can get a daily dose of its heady fragrance. In less sheltered gardens it will appreciate the protection of a nearby wall. Over time it will make quite a tall shrub, but it takes a long time to get there.
H x S: 4m x 1.5m
The splendid flowers of hellebores give mesmerising colours and patterns throughout winter. I’m partial to all of them, but am particularly drawn to Helleborus foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’, for its dramatic air and clusters of nodding flowers. Established plants produce several sturdy dark-red stems, each carrying bunches of lime-green bells edged with crimson.
H x S: 30-100cm x 50cm