The start of a new calendar year is often a time of reflection, on the year that's gone, and a chance to look ahead to the one to come. As gardeners, we're usually dreaming of warmer weather that'll allow us to spend more time outside, and thinking of the changes we'd like to make to our gardens over the coming months.


But a garden needn't just impress in spring and summer. With some careful planning and considered planting, it can be a show-stopper through the seasons. By growing compact varieties, adding evergreens, planting in containers and choosing species with more than one season of interest, you can have a beautiful garden all year round.

Although historic gardens, arboretums and parks often celebrate the seasons on a grand scale, you don’t need a large space to have structure, colour and texture in every month. Visiting them at different times of the year can provide a valuable source of inspiration for your own space. Discover the gardens you can visit using your 2-for-1 Gardens card.

Below, I share my simple planting ideas for each season and some of my favourite gardens to visit throughout the year.

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Consider bark and stem colour

The coppery brown bark of Prunus serrula dazzles in winter
The coppery brown bark of Prunus serrula dazzles in winter

Many trees have distinctive and striking ornamental bark. While they contribute to the garden year-round, it's in the winter months - when the garden is looking a bit bare - that they really come into their own.

The iconic Himalayan birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, looks spectacular with the low sun glinting off its ethereal white bark. Choose a named variety to ensure good colour, such as ‘Jermyns’ which matures quickly and grows to around 15m. ‘Silver Shadow’ is a slower-growing variety which reaches about 8m and has silvery-white bark. For smaller spaces, or even container growing, the dwarf birch ‘Magical Globe’ produces a ball of foliage above a bright white trunk.

Ideal for smaller gardens, the Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) has rich mahogany bark with a glossy sheen. Multi-stemmed specimens provide even more colour without taking up extra space. In addition to attractive bark, the white flowers in spring and buttery yellow autumn tones make this a superb all-year-round choice. Another excellent tree for winter colour, the snake bark maple (Acer grosseri), has vertically striated bark which is deep purple-red on young stems. Like the Tibetan cherry, this acer is suitable for smaller gardens and has fabulous colour as the foliage turns a fiery orange in autumn.

Not everyone has room in their garden for a specimen tree, but dogwoods have radiant winter colour and can be coppiced in spring so they don’t outgrow their allotted space. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ is a classic variety with bright red stems. C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is also a common sight in winter gardens creating a haze of fiery orange, often contrasted with the green stems of C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’. We love C. alba ‘Kesselringii’, which has deep maroon stems and C. alba ‘Aurea’ with its fresh gold-green foliage.

Ensure evergreen interest

Once herbaceous perennials have died back and autumn leaves have fallen, the bare bones of the garden are revealed. At this time of year, evergreens like conifers, hollies and yew provide form and colour. But you don’t need large trees to add winter interest. Compact evergreens create structure and lead the eye through the borders or along a path. Shrubs with small leaves such as Pittosporum tenuifolium, Lonicera nitida and Ilex crenata are ideal to clip into balls, pyramids or cones.

Box (Buxus sempervirens) is traditionally used for topiary, but box blight and box tree moth have made it a less reliable choice in recent years. Instead, we planted clipped balls of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ with its rich chocolate-purple leaves, and an aromatic rosemary hedge in our sunny, well-drained front garden. For alternative foliage colour, try Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’, which is easy to grow, although it needs regular pruning. Also suitable for clipping, Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ has light green leaves and Ilex crenata ‘Blondie’ has foliage that emerges a fresh yellow-green in spring.

Using evergreens to cover vertical surfaces creates colour and texture during the winter months. Training the silk-tassel bush (Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’) against a wall or fence provides interest from the dark green foliage and silvery catkins which hang down in glorious profusion through the winter. Itea ilicifolia is another evergreen wall shrub with long pendulous racemes of yellowy-green flowers from mid-summer to early autumn. Although the fragrant blooms are over by the winter, the holly-like glossy leaves add interest. Both shrubs prefer a sheltered spot and are frost hardy, though they may need protection in colder areas.

Evergreen climbers really come into their own in winter. Our Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica ‘Hall’s Prolific’ retains its foliage, though it can be semi-evergreen, and creates interest winding through the apple espaliers. Winter clematis has the benefit of evergreen foliage as well as flowers. Clematis urophylla ‘Winter Beauty’ is covered in white bell flowers from December to February, and C. cirrhosa var. purpurascens ‘Lansdowne Gem’ produces deep claret blooms during the same period.

Stimulate your sense of smell

Grow Christmas box for its pure white flowers and deliciously sweet vanilla scent
Grow Christmas box for its pure white flowers and deliciously sweet vanilla scent

A good planting scheme shouldn't solely be about what you can see. When you walk into your garden, you want to delight all of your senses, and getting the right perfumed plants in the right spots can be transformative to your experience of spending time in your outdoor space.

Fragrance adds an extra dimension to the garden no matter the time of year, but it can be especially impactful in the depths of winter. Perhaps the most alluring of scents at this time is produced by Christmas box (Sarcococca). Its white flowers might be tiny, but they can fill an entire garden with their sweet vanilla fragrance. As an evergreen that thrives in shade, it is ideal to add interest where other plants might struggle. S. hookeriana var. digna ‘Purple Stem’ is a particularly attractive variety with a beautiful scent, young stems flushed purple, and white flowers tinted pink.

Witch hazel has scented blooms in winter that look like thin ribbons of orange peel. We grow Hamamelis x intermedia Magic Fire (‘Feuerzauber’), which has glorious red twists of flowers, and H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’ with her coppery curls. Both hybrids have broad oval leaves which turn orange and red in autumn. Many witch hazels have yellow flowers such as Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ and Hamamelis mollis ‘Goldcrest’. Both are particularly highly fragranced.

Gardens for inspiration:

  • Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire – Winter Garden and collection of over 350 varieties of snowdrops.
  • Levens Hall, Cumbria – impressive collection of topiary in the world’s oldest topiary garden.
  • Cambo Gardens, Fife – Plant Heritage National Collection of snowdrops and Winter Garden.

Squeeze in spring bulbs

Tulip displays look their best in mid to late spring
Tulip displays look their best in mid to late spring

Bulbs are an important asset in the garden, providing swathes of vibrant colour - not only in spring, when there's little else in bloom, but across the seasons.

There’s nothing quite as exciting as the moment you notice the first spring bulbs emerging. For a succession of colour throughout the season, start with early flowerers such as Scilla mischtschenkoana with its ice-blue star-shaped flowers with a blue stripe. These combine beautifully in containers with blue grape hyacinths like Muscari neglectum or M. ‘Joyce Spirit’. Crocuses are also fantastic in early spring with Crocus ‘Advance’ opening its golden petals in February and March, and C. minimus ‘Spring Beauty’ adding purple tones with its lilac inner petals and white outer petals with deep purple feathering.

Around mid-spring, ancient woodlands are awash with a sea of bluebells (Hyocinthoides non-scripta), snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) appear in damp meadows and, if you’re lucky, you might see wild daffodils blooming (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). These wild flowers can be bought as bulbs (although bluebells are often planted ‘in the green’ in spring) and all three should naturalise over time. In mid to late spring, tulip displays are at their best. I love the sunset orange tones of ‘Prinses Irene’, alongside ‘National Velvet’ and ‘Paul Scherer’. Perhaps my favourite varieties are ‘Mistress Mystic’ with her smoky pink flowers and the elegant viridiflora tulip ‘Spring Green’.

Brighten up shady spots

Many spring-flowering perennials grow in deciduous woodland making them perfect for areas of dappled shade. Cowslips (Primula vulgaris) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) create gentle drifts of yellow and blue at the front of mixed borders and among shrubs. The white flowers of wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) look wonderful in moist, well-drained soil beneath deciduous trees or on a shady bank, and A. nemorosa ‘Royal Blue’ adds impact with its vivid lavender-blue blooms.

As well as beautiful spring flowers, some perennials have attractive foliage which lasts for much of the year. Favourites include Bergenia ‘Mrs Crawford’, a compact cultivar with white flowers and plum-red winter foliage, Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’ with its delightful raspberry red flowers and silver-spotted foliage, and Brunnera macrophylla ‘Alexanders Great’, which has enormous heart-shaped leaves with silver variegation and small blue flowers in spring.

Gardens for inspiration:

  • Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire –apple blossom from the National Collection of apples and tulip displays in the Walled Garden, newly planted orchard and idyllic bluebell woods.
  • Bodnant Garden, Conwy – rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias (National Collections of rhododendrons and magnolias), and the famous Laburnum Arch.
  • Himalayan Garden & Sculpture Park, North Yorkshire – extensive rhododendron, azalea and magnolia collections, and beautiful primula meadow.

Choose drought-tolerant plants

Choose summer plants that will withstand dry conditions and last into autumn
Choose summer plants that will withstand dry conditions and last into autumn

With warmer, drier summers becoming more frequent due to climate change, drought-resistant plants are likely to flower better and for longer than those requiring more water. Many summer-flowering Mediterranean shrubs such as Balearic Island sage (Phlomis italica), lavender, rosemary and rock rose (Cistus) thrive in well-drained soil in full sun. I also love Californian fuchsia (especially Epilobium canum ‘Olbrich Silver’), a semi-evergreen shrub with silvery-grey needle-like leaves and amazing scarlet tubular flowers from late summer to autumn, and the furry grey-green foliage and pink flowers of false dittany (Ballota pseudodictamnus).

In mixed borders alongside drought-resistant shrubs, blue-flowered perennials such as dwarf catmint (Nepeta racemosa), viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) and Mediterranean sea holly (Eryngium bourgatii) create a soft contrast with the lemon daisy flowers of Anthemis tinctoria ‘E.C. Buxton’ and creamy-yellow flowerheads of Achillea ‘Credo’. For hot borders, Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’, Achillea millefolium ‘Red Velvet’ or ‘Terracotta’, and Agastache ‘Kudos Mandarin’ create real impact. Grasses such as Stipa tenuissima and Anemanthele lessoniana tolerate sunny, dry conditions and add texture. When planting drought-tolerant species, it is still important to water them until well established.

Include late-summer stars

After the early and mid-summer blooms have faded, gardens often slip quietly into autumn. North American members of the daisy family such as sneezeweed (Helenium), sunflowers, black-eyed Susan, and coneflowers inject a new flush of colour into borders from late-summer onwards. Michaelmas daisies flower from August to October and are magnets for pollinating insects, – some of my favourites are Aster amellus ‘Rudolph Goethe’, which has lavender-blue flowers that are great for cutting, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Andenken an Alma Pӧtschke’, which produces a mass of cherry-red blooms, and Symphyotrichum novi-belgii ‘White Ladies’, which has pure white flowers with yellow centres. Other late-summer to autumn stalwarts include elegant Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ and robust sedum Hylotelephium telephium ‘Karfunkelstein’ with its clusters of red-pink flowers and glorious plum foliage.

Gardens for inspiration:

  • Drum Castle, Aberdeenshire – Garden of Historic Roses with over 150 varieties
  • Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, Essex – Beth’s garden demonstrates the concept of ‘right plant right place’, and includes her gravel garden which is never watered.
  • Trentham Gardens – the Rivers of Grass and Floral Labyrinth Gardens, designed by Piet Oudolf, showcase grasses and herbaceous perennials.

Add compact autumn colour

There are many trees with striking autumn leaves, but if your garden is too small to plant a sweet gum tree such as Liquidamber styraciflua ‘Lane Roberts’ or a crab apple like Malus tschonoskii for their foliage colour, you can choose more compact trees and shrubs. The American redbud, Cercis canadensis ‘Eternal Flame’, can be grown in a container, as can maples like Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’, which we’ve grown in a large pot for over a decade. The purplish foliage of smoke bush Cotinus ‘Grace’ turns bright red and orange in autumn, and plants can be pruned hard in spring to maintain their compact size. Heavenly bamboo Nandina domestica ‘Fire Power’, as its name suggests, is a small shrub with blazing red autumn colour.

Climbers add interest to walls and fences at this time of year too. The ornamental grape vine Vitis coignetiae has attractive red autumn foliage and the leaves of Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’ turn a deep purple colour. Virginia creeper and Boston ivy have breathtaking autumn colour, but are too vigorous for smaller spaces. Their close cousin, the Chinese virginia creeper (Parthenocissus henryana), is more suitable for small gardens. And edibles can have great autumn foliage too. We grow blueberries in containers and move the pots out onto the patio at the end of summer, so we can watch the foliage turning burnished orange and red from our dining room window.

Don't forget seed heads

Enjoy the beauty of attractive seedheads on plants like honesty in autumn and winter
Enjoy the beauty of attractive seedheads on plants like honesty in autumn and winter

By including plants that have attractive seedheads, you get several seasons of interest from a single plant – beautiful flowers in summer, followed by the seedheads, which will add structure to your borders right through autumn and winter, and will look magnificent laced with frost. Many annuals and perennials produce striking seedheads, some of my favourites are wild carrots, honesty and snapdragons.

Globe thistles (Echinops ritro) produce spiky balls that appear to float above the foliage, whereas teasels (Dipsacus fullonum) have conical seed heads that entice goldfinches down to feed. Many frosted flowerheads of umbellifers look like silvery explosions, but my favourite, the wild carrot (Daucus carota), curls back in on itself to produce the most delicate filigree parcels.

You can’t beat honesty seed heads with their papery oval cases protecting the large coffee-coloured seeds within. Clematis seed heads look like puffs of smoke along a wall or fence, and we love the froth created by tufted hair grass seed heads in our borders. For more unusual shapes, Turkish sage (Phlomis russeliana) produces a series of globes on stems that rise out of the seed head beneath, love-in-a-mist has intricate feathered pods and snapdragon seed heads look like miniature shrunken skulls!


Gardens for inspiration:

  • Westonbirt National Arboretum, Gloucestershire – with 2,500 tree species including a National Collection of maple species and another of Japanese maple cultivars, the autumn foliage display at Westonbirt is spectacular
  • The National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire – explore the autumn tree trail past Japanese maples, Himalayan birch, tulip trees and many more.
  • Mount Stewart, County Down – autumn is the best time to walk the woodland trails. Keep an eye out for red squirrels in the trees!