5 essential … plants for winter interest

In the depths of winter plants which provide structure, colour and fragrance in a garden are especially welcome. Here are a few easy plants which will offer much, if not all, of that.

It isn’t just leaves and flowers that add colour to the garden – stems can do it too and those of shrubby Cornus (commonly known as ‘dogwoods’) do it in style. Depending on the variety, at this time of year their upright stems provide a stunningly vivid display of dark red, orange, limey green or dark bronze-black, from leaf fall right through the winter.

cornus stems

For maximum impact, go for a group planting of 3 or more and they will look truly spectacular in an open spot where they will literally light up when the winter sun hits them.

Although you could argue its star turn is in winter, Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ also produces small white flowers in spring followed by white berries in autumn and its golden yellow leaves turn red and orange in Autumn.

cornus

So basically it’s a great plant for interest pretty much all year round.  It isn’t fussy about soil, but will do best in moist soil and is a useful plant for wet areas of the garden.
Top tip: Prune hard to 30-40cm above ground in early spring to prevent the shrub getting too large and to rejuvenate it so that fresh coloured stems grow each year.

Hamamelis or ‘witch hazel’ is definitely a wonder in winter when the bare branches are covered in clusters of sweetly scented yellow, orange or red spidery flowers. Plant it on a woodland edge, or in winter border alongside a path, where its fragrance can be appreciated and you can cut the flowering twigs and bring them indoors to perfume your house in winter.

Hamamelis intermedia 'Bernstein'

This large spreading shrub/small tree grows (slowly!) up to around 4m in height and spread, so give it plenty of space to expand in time. Hamamelis prefer a moist, well-drained neutral to acid soil in sun or partial shade.

Helleborus sternii is a very attractive evergreen perennial with pretty creamy-pink-green flowers that will brighten up a winter woodland or shady border from January to March.

 

Hellebore sternii.JPG (1)

Standing about 30cm tall it has glossy, prickly-edged leaves and provides architectural shape in the border all year round, so it’s a great plant if you want some attractive evergreen structure at a low level or to grow under trees and shrubs.  It’s also ideal to plant in a raised flower bed, where the flowers can be seen more easily.  Helleborus sternii likes a neutral to alkaline soil in sun or partial shade and will benefit from a mulch of well rotted organic matter in autumn. Most hellebores are very hardy, but this variety may need a bit of shelter from cold winter winds.

Phyllostachys Aurea is a tall, strongly upright growing bamboo that’s great for hedging and screening, but also makes a very elegant specimen plant whose stems when mature can add a wonderful splash of golden colour to your winter garden.

Phyllostachys

For maximum impact, plant in full sun and prune the lower side shoots away to reveal the canes in all their glory.  If you’re not too keen on the yellow colour, opt instead for Phyllostachys nigra which has very attractive black shoots.  Plant in moist, well drained soil in sun or partial shade, and protect from cold, drying winds.  Top tip: if you don’t want to find this plant running amok through your garden (and the garden next door!) surround the roots with a non-perishable barrier that will restrict the plant’s spread. You have been warned!!

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is a tall, imposing and highly architectural plant that will add year round structure and winter interest to a shady area of the garden. Despite its large size and prickly leaves, this plant has one of the most delicious and delicate of scents, very like that of Lily of the Valley, which makes a wonderful surprise in the winter.

mahonia charity

The spikes of fragrant pale yellow flowers are held above rosettes of large dark green, holly-like leaves from November to March and provide a valuable source of nectar for pollinating insects in winter while the blue/black berries that follow will attract birds into your garden.  This hardy shrub will be happy in a moderately fertile moist or well drained soil.

Mahonia

 

You can also find more plants for winter interest in my previous blogs:

5 essential … plants for winter seedheads

5 essential … small evergreen plants

 

Photos:  Janet Bligh

 

 

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5 essential … trees for spring blossom

Nothing lifts flagging winter spirits like the first signs of blossom on the boughs, the clouds of pink and white that follow bringing with them the first true promise of spring and a new gardening year. While the iconic blossom trees are April’s ornamental cherries, the blossom season lasts from February to early May, moving through the Prunus family (from blackthorn, apricots, plums and cherries) and then on to the later crab apples, apples and Hawthorn.  And right now it’s the perfect time to be planting trees so get busy and ensure you have lots of beautiful blossom to look forward to!

One of the earliest blossom trees to flower is Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidore’, a dainty Japanese apricot that grows to only 3 metres and produces deep carmine pink, almond scented flowers on bare stems in late February to March.

Prunus Beni-chidori ©Ornamental Trees

The yellow fruits that follow are edible, but not pleasantly so as they are very bitter. It prefers a moist, fertile, well-drained soil and is best planted in a sunny, sheltered spot next to a path in order to catch the scent. It also makes a good container plant.

For something a little bit different, ornamental pear trees flower ahead of most other blossom trees and are usually easy to grow, tolerant of most soils and conditions and disease resistant. Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ is one of the best. It is an upright, compact tree to 7-10m in height and carries large white flowers on bare stems in March.

Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer © Marc Deraeve

The fruit aren’t suitable for human consumption, but make useful late season food for birds and the leaves take on fiery tints in autumn, later than many other trees.

Amelanchier lamarkii is another early bloomer, smothering itself in delicate, star shaped white flowers in March to April. In early summer these go on to produce edible purple/black fruits that are a particular favourite of blackbirds. The small leaves provide dappled shade in summer and turn from striking bronze when they emerge to green and then brilliant red and orange in autumn.

Amelanchier. © beechwood nurseries

It is a slow grower and makes an excellent choice as a specimen for smaller gardens. It can also be grown as a multi-stemmed tree, providing additional structural interest in winter. Happy in sun or partial shade, this tree tolerates extreme cold and wet, but does need a lime free soil.

The real stars of the show are the ornamental cherries, many of which have Japanese names as they were bred from Japanese garden cherries by the famous plantsman, Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingrams. Amongst the most unusual of these is Prunus ‘Ukon’ as its clusters of large, semi-double blossoms are neither pink nor white, but pale sulphur yellow. These open from pink buds in mid to late April and are perfectly complemented by its bronze/brown young foliage. It has an attractive, spreading habit and umbrella-like canopy and is altogether a beautiful tree for any garden. (Ultimate height and spread approximately 8m x 10m).  Prunus avium Plena (AGM) is not Japanese, but the double flowered version of our native cherry and is covered in a profusion of pure white drooping flowers in late April to May. Its young bronze leaves turn to dark green and then a rich, vibrant red in autumn. At about 10m x 10m it makes a spectacular specimen or avenue tree in a large garden.

Prunus avium plena ©RHS plants

 

If it’s pink that takes your fancy, Prunus ‘Ichiyo’ is a lovely, dainty tree (up to 6m tall) with neat, shell-pink blooms set off by bronze-green foliage.

Prunus Ichiyo ©rhs
Ornamental cherries grow best in fertile, well-drained, soil in sun or partial shade. They will not tolerate water logging.
Late bloomers, but no less beautiful for it, the crab apples see the blossom season out in style. They are related to our domestic apple (for which they make excellent pollinators), but have much smaller fruits which can only be eaten cooked and are mostly made into jellies and jams. In late spring, they have pretty, scented, usually single flowers, ranging in colour from pure white to deep pink, depending on the variety.  Some cultivars have purple leaves.  In autumn, they have small, attractively coloured red or yellow ‘miniature apples’ and they often have good autumn leaf colour as well. Most crab apples do not grow to more than 6m tall, and take quite a long time to get there so they are excellent trees for small gardens.  Malus hupehensis is an exception to this rule and, at up to 12 metres tall, makes a wonderful spreading specimen tree.

Malus-hupehensis ©rhs

It has profuse clusters of pink-budded white flowers in spring, followed by cherry-shaped, deep-red fruits, and red and yellow autumn tints to the leaves.
Crab apples are very hardy, and happy to grow in almost any soil, provided it does not dry out easily in summer. They like a sunny position, but will tolerate some shade.

 

Photos credits:  Ornamental Trees, Marc Deraeve, Beechwood Nurseries, Royal Horticultural Society.

 

5 essential… plants for birds over winter

Winter is a hard time for garden birds.  They need to eat a lot in order to keep warm and survive the cold nights, but falling temperatures make their regular food supplies scarce.  Putting up feeders is one solution, but many garden plants double-up as life-saving food resources for garden birds and no one has to remember to fill them!  The seeds and berries of many plants provide nutrient rich snacks from late summer into winter, whilst others hide tasty insects in their stems and foliage or provide sheltered roosting spots.  Here are five of the best bird-friendly plants to include in your garden.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is one of the very best sources of both food and shelter for overwintering birds.  Its distinctive creamy white flower heads appear from October onwards and their nectar attracts insects for robins and wrens to feed on.

ivyberries-brian-ecott

 

The large black berries which follow are devoured by a whole range of birds, including blackbirds, song thrushes and starlings while the dense foliage provides roosting spots out of cold winds and shelter for hibernating insects which make more snacks for the birds!
Gardening tips: Only mature plants over one metre in height will produce flowers and berries and ivy that’s kept tightly clipped year round won’t get a chance to flower either.  Try to keep at least a section of ivy in the garden that can get a bit messy and wait until early spring to get the shears out.

Holly, ivy’s traditional companion, is also well worth considering as part of a bird friendly garden.  Birds prefer red berried varieties such as our familiar native species, Ilex aquifolium, or English Holly, with its glossy, very prickly dark green leaves and abundance of small red berries from late autumn.  As well as feeding the birds, the berries provide a long-lasting splash of colour over winter as they ripen in late autumn, but don’t tend to be eaten until later winter.

 

holly-leaf

Frost on holly leaves on a freezing day in winter

Like all hollies, Ilex aquifolium is very slow growing, but will eventually reach 10 metres and make a very elegant architectural specimen tree for a large lawn or woodland planting.  Beware if planting in a border as the leaves will make weeding very painful!  Hollies thrive in any soil as long it is not waterlogged and tolerate pollution, winds and seaside conditions.
Gardening tips: Only female plants produce berries and require a male plant for fertilisation, so, unless you know you already have a male plant nearby, it’s safest to plant both.  It isn’t necessary for the male to be the same species so go for something contrasting, like ‘Silver Queen’ with its distinctive silvery margined leaves and purple stems.

Another all-time berrying favourite with birds is Sorbus aucuparia, otherwise known as the Mountain Ash or Rowan.  Its large bunches of deep red berries are a rich source of food for numerous species.  And if you’ve ever seen them glowing against a bright blue autumn sky, you know it isn’t just the birds who enjoy them.  This is a pretty tree in all seasons, with a naturally conical shape, dainty mid green, fern-like foliage and sprays of tiny white flowers in spring.  Berrying times vary depending on variety of tree – some starting as early as August, and others not until November.

sorbus-rose-queen-firgrove-photographic
It’s tougher than it looks and can tolerate harsh conditions while its modest height of 15m x 7m makes it ideal for a smaller garden.  Rowans prefer full sun to light shade and slightly acidic soil, but will tolerate any soil type.
Gardening tips: Rowans require minimal pruning. Remove any broken, diseased or crossing branches in late autumn or winter.

The common Hawthorn or May tree, Crataegus monogyna, supports over 300 insect species and provides food and shelter for birds all year round.  Shiny clusters of deep red berries, or haws, ripen in autumn and can stay on the tree until February or March to be enjoyed by many bird species including blackbirds, chaffinches, greenfinches, redwings and fieldfares.

hawsdavid-fenwick-aphotoflora-com

It is a small, rounded, deciduous tree with spiny branches, glossy, deeply lobed leaves and flat sprays of creamy-white flowers in May.

hawthorn-in-flower

I LOVE Hawthorn blossom – a true sign that spring has arrived, and such a pretty flower.

A lovely specimen tree for an informal or wildlife garden, hawthorn also makes an excellent hedge, either on its own or as part of a mixed wildlife hedge.  It thrives on any well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade and can tolerate exposed and coastal sites. Height and spread: 4-8m.

Rosehips are also a rich source of vitamins and antioxidants for overwintering birds. Some of the largest produced are the heavy round orange or red hips of Rosa rugosa (either ‘Alba’ or ‘Rubra’), which are especially popular with blackbirds, fieldfares and mistle thrushes. (Smaller hips are produced on Rosa canina (the Dog rose) and these last into late winter.)

rose-hips
Rosa rugosa is a vigorous species rose with distinctly pleated, leathery, dark green leaves that turn a buttery gold in autumn and a constant succession of fragrant, single, yellow-centred flowers from June to September. It makes an excellent informal hedge for an open, sunny site on fertile, humus rich, well-drained soil.

rosa-rugosa-flower
Gardening tips: Rosa rugosa requires little pruning.  Remove one third of older stems every 2 or 3 years to rejuvenate the plant.
 

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, David Fenwick, Brian Ecott

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.

TREES & HEDGES
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).

SHRUBS & CLIMBERS

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

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

POND CARE
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.

PESTS & DISEASES
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