Fabulous plants for December

Who said winter is a boring time in the garden?!  There are lots of great plants which provide visual interest at this time of year, and here is just a small selection.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’
Also known variously as ‘Black Dragon’, ‘Ebony Knight’, or ‘Arabicus’, this lilyturf is an extraordinary looking plant with arching purple-green leaves that turn jet black when grown in full sun and very well-drained soil.

It’s a small clump-forming, evergreen perennial growing to 20cm high. Its tiny bell-shaped, purplish-white flowers in summer are followed by round, dark blue-black fruit.

As it is so dwarf and such a dark colour, it is easily lost in the middle of a mixed border so it looks best grown against a light background such as gravel, or next to plants with contrasting foliage.  In my own garden I use it to edge a path and also next to a timber bridge and a deck where it can be seen in all its glory.  In winter a dusting of frost makes this plant look particularly attractive.

Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens

Ophiopogon prefers good, slightly acid, soil in full sun or partial shade and will spread to form a sizeable colony, needing no maintenance at all other than curbing its growth when required (but as it’s not a vigorous grower that’s generally not a problem).  As an alternative to the black variety, try straight Ophiopogon planiscapus which has bright green leaves and tiny white flowers.

Pyracantha Saphyr Orange
This is a compact form of ‘Firethorn’ which is semi-evergreen.  Deep green glossy leaves will hold through winter unless it is very cold.  Spiny branches are easily trained on a wall or fence in sun or shade and moist soil.  In late spring and early summer the plants are smothered in large clusters of tiny white flowers. These are loved by bees and are followed by orange berries in autumn – a favourite with Thrushes and Blackbirds through the winter.


Ultimately this Pyracantha will reach 2.5m tall with a similar spread.  A resilient plant that is tolerant of most conditions, including both drought and pollution, although in frost-prone areas is better sheltered from cold, drying winds.

Sarcococca confusa
One of those unsung heroes of the garden, Sarcococca confusa (commonly known as ‘Sweet Box’ or ‘Christmas Box’) is an easy, neat, low, reliable evergreen shrub which doesn’t do a great deal until the depths of winter when its small white scented flowers pack a real punch.

Christmas box

Good in shade or sun and any reasonable soil, with small glossy evergreen leaves, position it near a door or pathway where you will get the benefit of its beautiful fragrance.

Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’
Even if you’re not a great fan of yellow flowers, there is no denying that Mahonias will brighten up even the dreariest of winter gardens.  Unlike the low growing types, the Mahonia x media varieties are upright evergreen shrubs with a statuesque shape, wonderful spiny architectural foliage and scented flowers.

Mahonia 'Lionel Fortescue'

They make a great addition to the shady garden.  Mahonia are hardy, do well in most soils and need no pruning if allowed to reach their natural mature height (approx. 3 metres in the case of ‘Lionel Fortescue’).

Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’ 
Ferns are such easy and useful plants, bringing lovely textures to shady planting schemes.  This Polystichum (or Soft Shield Fern) is also evergreen which means it’s very useful for winter interest (shown here in frosty conditions).  It can be grown in pots in the shade or in borders as underplanting for deciduous shrubs and trees.

Polystichum setiferum Herrenhausen

This is a lovely compact plant (at 60cm high max.) which is happy in most garden soils as long as it doesn’t get too dry.  It’s a great companion to plants such as Hosta, Liriope, Luzula nivea, Brunnera macrophylla and Hellebores which enjoy the same growing conditions.

Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’
‘Tis the season to be jolly …’ This holly will perk up shadier corners and it looks especially cheery in winter sunshine.  The spiny leaves have a creamy margin and young growth is tinged pink.  The bright red berries of the female plants are a valuable food source for birds in winter, and of course the stems are brilliant to cut to decorate the house at Christmas.

Ilex Argentea Marginata
Hollies are slow growing and this variety (known as ‘Arge Marge’ to those of us in the business!)  is ideal to keep as a shrub or use as a hedging plant.  Hollies can also be trained on a single stem to form a mop-headed tree.  Easy to grow, tough plants, they are happy in either sun or partial shade, and not too fussy about soil types.  Perfect!


You can also read more about plants with colourful stems to brighten up the winter garden including dogwoods, willow, bamboo and ornamental brambles by clicking here.

dogwoods in winter

Cornus alba underplanted with Carex Evergold

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Jobs for the garden in December

As the year draws to a close you can afford to take a bit of time off from labouring in the garden, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do!  Here are a few of the more important tasks you should be carrying out this month:

Finish clearing leaves and debris, particularly from borders and rock gardens where they can smother small plants.  This will also help to reduce slugs and snails who like to hide in amongst them. Burn any diseased plant material you find while clearing up.

If the ground is not too waterlogged or frozen, dig new planting areas, using boards to stand on to avoid compacting the soil.  Add bulky organic matter such as garden compost or well-rotten farmyard manure.

Well-rotted manure

Winter is also an ideal time to check soil pH and nutrient levels and put right any deficiencies.

While the evenings are dark and you’re likely to be at home more, think about where you could benefit from additional garden lighting, either from a safety point of view, or just to be able to enjoy the garden from inside the house.

When the leaves have fallen you can start to prune deciduous trees and some shrubs (leave the pruning of more tender shrubs until spring).

Continue planting bare-root trees and hedges when the weather allows.

Prune overgrown deciduous hedges (such as Hornbeam and Beech).


Rose by Firgrove Photographic
Plant bare root roses (shrubs and climbers) now – but not in frosty conditions.

Carry out lawn repairs if conditions permit, rake up fallen leaves. However avoid walking on the lawn when it is frosty or waterlogged.

Remove netting from ponds and prevent your pond from freezing over by floating a rubber ball on the pond which you can remove to leave a hole for oxygen for fish, frogs and other pond-life.

frozen pond

Alternatively stand a saucepan of hot water on the frozen surface until it melts a hole in the ice.

Keep an eye on overwintering rhizomes and tubers (of plants such as Dahlias and Cannas) for signs of rot.

This is a good time to fork over vacant ground as it exposes pests to hungry birds.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Jobs for the productive garden in December

Life’s getting a bit easier now that winter is here.  Not too much hard graft to do and it’s more about clearing up and planning for next year.

Kitchen Garden

grape vine

Prune ornamental and edible grape vines, and prune soft and tree fruits including currants, gooseberries, apples and pears (don’t be tempted to prune plum or cherry trees now – leave them until summer).  Save pruned stems from apple and pear trees to use for plant supports for perennials during the spring and summer.

If you have bare-rooted fruit trees and bushes to plant, get them in as soon as possible. If the ground is frozen over or too wet, heel them in (plant temporarily) until conditions improve.

Harvesting leeks

Harvest celery, beetroot, turnips, sprouts, kale, parsnips, leeks and carrots.  Earth up tall Brussels sprout stems to support them against winter winds.

Force rhubarb to produce a tender early crop – insulate the crown with straw and then cover with a forcing pot or upturned dustbin.

Make sure that you store fruit and vegetables in a cool, airy, frost free place: check regularly and discard any that show signs of rot.

Order plants of early crops such as seed potatoes, summer bulbs, onions sets, cabbages, cauliflowers and lettuces from specialists for early spring delivery.  It is worth ordering early as suppliers will run out of the most popular lines.

Cutting garden
For fragrant flowers indoors, pick stems of Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet), Lonicera fragrantissima (winter honeysuckle), Sarcococca (Christmas Box) and Viburnum.  Collect winter foliage, colourful stems and berries for Christmas decorations.

Rose hips

Roses grown for cutting and their hips should be planted now as the bare-root season is in full swing.

Pinch out the tips of autumn sown sweet pea seedlings once they have two pairs of leaves.

If you planted scented Narcissi and Hyacinth bulbs in pots last month, bring them in from the greenhouse now so that they flower in time for Christmas.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh

Fabulous plants for November

All is not lost!  Although there’s no denying there isn’t as much colour and interest to enjoy in the garden at this time of year, there’s still a number of valuable plants worth considering planting.  Here’s a small selection:

Fagus sylvatica

Beech columns and hedges at RHS Wisley

Beech columns and hedges at RHS Wisley

Beech (Fagus sylvatica) makes a great hedge for the garden, offering interest more or less all year round.  In spring the young leaves of common Beech are soft green, gradually brightening and becoming a richer green.   Later in the year the colour changes into the yellows and russets of autumn, and the dry coppery brown leaves are usually retained throughout the winter, glowing in winter sun, and continuing to provide wind protection and screening.  So although a beech hedge is technically deciduous, it offers many of the advantages of an evergreen hedge but with additional seasonal interest.

An alternative to the common beech, is Copper beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’) which has attractive purple leaves in spring, gradually darkening as the season progresses.

Beech is native to the UK and tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, including well-drained chalk, although on heavy clay, or very cold, exposed sites and in frost pockets, Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is a better choice (and to be honest, it’s quite hard to tell the difference with hedging unless you look very closely at the leaves).

Beech is best planted in full sun or partial shade, and if you’re planning on planting a hedge or tree, November is the best time to be doing it as bare-root plants are now available and the soil is still fairly warm. These plants are not only cheaper to buy than container plants, but quick to establish.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’  (Japanese Silver Grass)

Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus'

‘Malepartus’ is a vigorous, free-flowering deciduous grass growing to 2m tall, with broad arching leaves and prolific pink-tinged flower heads in summer (somewhat earlier than many other grasses). In autumn the flowers start to turn silvery white for the winter.  This is a bushy grass spreading to about 1.5m and is tolerant of most soils if well drained but not too dry. It is happy in either exposed or more sheltered situations, it can take a little shade but prefers full sun.

Graceful and stately, Miscanthus ‘Malepartus’ can be used in borders, screen plantings and backgrounds and it works beautifully as an accent or specimen plant – but give it plenty of room to really do its thing.  It is generally pest free and very easy to grow, only needing the dead foliage and old flowered stems removing in spring as new growth appears from the base.

Cyclamen hederifolium

The ivy-leaved Cyclamen is a beautiful tiny perennial that provides very valuable low-growing autumn colour for the garden.  Each flower lasts for weeks and the display is lengthened by the succession of flowers.

cyclamen hederifolium

Both the pink and white varieties grow to about 12cm in height, and make a stunning carpeting effect when planted en masse.  The silvery-green patterned leaves are usually produced after the flowers.

Planted as tubers and spreading over time, these hardy Cyclamen enjoy sun or partial shade, and are very drought tolerant in shade.  They particularly thrive in soils with added leaf litter so are fantastic to grow under trees and shrubs.

Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’
This lovely Clematis is a wonderful climbing plant for the winter garden.  Not only is it evergreen, but also flowers between November and February when most gardens are crying out for some colour.  ‘Freckles’ needs a warm, sheltered and preferably sunny position and thrives in any fertile, well-drained soil.

Clematis cirrhosa Freckles

It is seen to best advantage scrambling over an arch where you can walk underneath and look up into the dainty nodding creamy yellow flowers all speckled with red inside. You could also allow it to grow through shrubs, or a hedge, which need brightening up over winter. After the flowers attractive silky seedheads are produced.

Clematis Freckles seedheads

There is no need to prune Clematis cirrhosa unless it is getting too big, and hard pruning is not recommended. ‘Freckles’ will usually reach about 3.5m in height.

Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’
Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is a tough, popular evergreen shrub. The bright green variegated foliage has white leaf margins, which on some, but not all, leaves flush to a deep rose pink in cold winters.

It could never be called exciting, but it is a hugely valuable shrub for difficult areas (such as dry shade where it is also useful for brightening things up) and it is a truly low maintenance plant, just needing a light clip if it is getting out of shape.

Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety'

If planted next to a wall or fence it will spread upwards to about 2m, otherwise it forms a low, spreading bush about 60cm high by 1m wide (in time).

Click on the links below to read about more great autumn plants

Acer Palmatum
Hydrangea quercifolia
Vitis ‘Brandt’
Dahlia ‘David Howard’
Liriope muscari

Trees for autumn colour

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic