Winter Shrubs

It’s the last day of February already! The first of March marks the beginning of the season ahead and after a distinctly spring like day, I’m happily optimistic about the months to come. I’ve been reflecting on our winter garden over the last few weeks, for as we’ve been so restricted, flowering shrubs have been a joy in the dark and cold months, providing colour and even better – most have the most wonderful perfume. In addition, the evergreens add structure to otherwise bare borders and beds.

I’ve received lots of offers for winter shrubs in emails and flyers recently – so tempting! However, it would be really easy (and undoubtedly foolhardy) to succumb to the delights on offer, so it really is important to ensure that not only do I control my propensity to impulse buy, but also to check that the conditions in our gardens are suitable – the last thing I’d want is for a plant to languish unhappily and eventually die. I find it really useful to make a habit of observing winter flowering shrubs in parks and gardens throughout the year as not only are conditions important, but also – in a small garden every plant needs to earn its keep, so size is an issue! I have a few favourites and if not yet already planted in our gardens, I’m busy planning…..

At first sight and despite its evergreen foliage and attractive reddish stems, the diminutive evergreen sweet box, sarcococca confusa may look rather uninteresting and indeed, end up being passed by on a visit to the garden centre. However, it has the most wonderful, strong aroma to enjoy when in flower – but do make sure you position it along a walkway to take full advantage. Preferring moist well drained, hummus rich soil, this plant thrives in shade. It’s fairly slow growing, reaching a height and spread of up to 2 x 1.5 metres in ten years.

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ seems to be a marmite plant, you either love it or hate it. I’m in the love camp – along with blue tits, black caps and sparrows who feast on its vibrant yellow petals and the bumblebees who adore the nectar. After this winter’s abundant flowering, we’ve just given our row a good pruning to ensure they fill out and flower just as well next year – taking care with the razor like spikes on the leaves! It is important to prune to the desired height each year – at a 10 year height and spread of 4 metres, it tends to reach for the sky and can become leggy and top heavy if left unchecked. Mahonias are happy in any soil, but do prefer some sun in order to thrive.

From a hedging point of view, the evergreen viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ is a great plant, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is its only function. Growing well as either a standard or specimen plant, it flowers in winter, reaches a height and spread of 2 metres, isn’t picky about soil conditions and does well in sun or shade – what’s not to like! Mom gave me this one on my 40th birthday and it has been flourishing in dry shade ever since (quite a long time!). I’ve attempted to standardise it – with some success, but it grows quickly and can get rather top heavy, so needs a close eye!

The common dogwood, cornus sanguinea, is well known for the vibrant colours offered by its winter stems and varieties are often used in mass planting in communal settings – but don’t let that put you off! They are deciduous shrubs preferring sun or partial shade in any well drained soil and will grow to a height and spread of approximately 2 metres. Stem colour ranges from yellow through orange to deep red and they really are stunning when grown with tall grasses against an evergreen back drop or under trees with striking bark, such as prunus serrula or betula ‘Moonshine’. All growth should be cut back to approximately 8 inches in March each year to encourage new colour rich stems.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ planted in groups or drifts creates the illusion of firelight, crackling and warm once its leaves have fallen in late Autumn and its fiery stems are exposed. It’s a great plant to add colour in winter, this one is part of a drift in Walsall Arboretum and it certainly lights up our walk with Ollie during the darker months! I’ve planted a few in a drift in our garden and am hoping for a similar effect in years to come….

For instant and striking impact, the evergreen Fatsia japonica, growing to an ultimate height and spread of 12-14 feet, has verdant palmate leaves growing to a width of up to 10 inches which add structure to the garden. It has ivy like white flowers dotted on reaching stems which continue to add interest as they’re followed by small black fruits. This versatile shrub will grow in most well drained soils in sun or partial shade, but it does need shelter. 

Early flowering camellias blossom from late December and their gorgeous petals sit beautifully amidst the shrub’s glossy evergreen leaves. The only drawback is the damage caused by frost so some protection of the opening buds is advisable where possible. Feed in spring with an ericaceous preparation as they are acid loving plants and plan to prune lightly after flowering.

I’ve got two sweet smelling hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ (witch hazel), casting their spells on me at the moment – I just love them! With their unusual brightly coloured spidery petals and bewitching scent, these deciduous shrubs really do shine during the darkest months, but there is a drawback – in summer they unfortunately don’t have the most interesting foliage. Currently sitting just outside the back door in fiery red pots, I had been trying to pluck up courage to plant them out (the last one I planted out didn’t make it to the following winter!). However, as they have limited year round appeal, I’ve decided that in our small garden they are better left in pots that can be moved around by season, taking a back seat in summer and as they really don’t like cold wind, a sheltered position by the house in winter suits them perfectly. However, if you do have space for a winter border, this plant will need an open site, sun or partial shade and most importantly; well drained but moist, neutral to acidic soil.

For a sensuous treat in the depths of winter, the perfume drifting off viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is intoxicating; I’ve a tall specimen growing next to the greenhouse and just the slightest breeze blows its scent through the window. At a height and spread of 2 x 1.5m and happy in sun/part shade and any soil, it’s a plant with small flowering clusters that do manage to pack a punch.

So what do I plan to plant ready for next winter? My first choice is daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’, heavily perfumed and evergreen, followed by a few more witch hazels and most definitely chimonanthus praecox, the aptly named ‘wintersweet’.

I’d have to challenge anyone who says that winter is a dead and dreary season as there’s a great solution – aim for a year round garden!

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