After the long hours of daylight and all the lush growth of summer, winter can often seem a bit of a let-down in the garden – two or three dark months of almost complete dormancy, when little or nothing seems to be going on.
There’s no getting around the fact that the winter garden is always going to be a less showy place than its warmer-weather self, but with a little careful planning it can still have a lot to offer.
In many ways it’s more important than ever to make the most of things while you wait for those welcome first signs of spring. Fortunately, with a few well chosen plants you can still have enough splashes of colour even in the depth of winter to make the garden an attractive sight to see – even if for most of the time you’ll only be glimpsing it from the warmth of indoors!
Of course, there aren’t that many plants which bloom in the winter, but there are a few. Mahonias are worthy of their place in any garden for their striking, if somewhat spiky, leaves and bold shape alone, but as it gets colder the leaves of many varieties turn a fiery red, and the winter-flowering ones really do come into their own.
Few denizens of the winter border can compete with their long flowering branches – known to botanists as ‘racemes’ – covered in clusters of small individual yellow or whitish flowers. As a bonus, some kinds are even fragrantly scented too – though you might need to watch little fingers around those spiny leaves.
There are plenty to choose from, including:
- Mahonia acanthifolia – not the hardiest variety, but certainly amongst the most magnificent.
- M. lomariifolia – a beautiful yellow-flowering variety, but susceptible to prolonged frosts.
- M. x media – a family of hardier hybrid varieties, fast growers with a fine show of flowers.
However, of all the Mahonia clan, M. japonica is arguably the champion winter flowerer, putting on a display of yellow, scented blooms from late autumn through to early spring. If you only pick one plant for winter colour, make it this one!
Other winter-flowering plants that you might like to consider include:
- Snowdrops – a timeless favourite, especially if white is your colour!
- Winter-flowering pansies and violas – cheerful, happy faces in the garden, but protect them from harsh winds.
- Winter heathers – Erica carnea is ideal, since it doesn’t need acid soil or special treatment to thrive.
- Witch Hazel – a deciduous shrub or small tree which produces yellow-flowering twigs between December and February.
Stems and Foliage
Picking plants with interesting shades of foliage, or coloured stems is another way of brightening up the winter garden. Different kinds of evergreens often come in a wonderful range of greens – everything from poster-paint pea-green to almost blue. Conifers are particularly good in this respect and if you choose wisely, you can produce a striking display of different tones and shapes.
The coloured branches of some of the deciduous plants are also seen at their best in the winter. The red and yellow stems of Cornus, the blues, greys and whites of different varieties of Eucalyptus trees or the honey-red bark of Prunus maackii for instance, can all make punchy and powerful contributions at this time of year.
A Word of Caution
It’s worth remembering that although you may come across plenty of other suggestions in books or online, many of the old gardeners’ favourites for providing colour at this time of year are potentially harmful if eaten. Cylamens, Daphnes and Irises, for example, are often suggested as ideal candidates for the winter garden – and of course they are – but parts of them are poisonous, making them something probably best avoided around very young children. Watch out for plants with brightly coloured berries too; the birds may love them, but they’re not always so good for kids!
There are many different kinds of wonderful plants on offer that will liven up your surroundings during the cold months, so just check any intended purchases against a reliable list of poisonous plants before you buy them, and you shouldn’t go far wrong.
Whatever you choose to brighten up your kid’s winter garden, don’t forget to plant things in a place where you’ll all get maximum benefit from them – and that almost certainly means where you can see them from inside the house. That way you and your kids can enjoy the sight of some cheerful garden colour on even the coldest, wettest and most miserable days when you simply don’t want to venture outdoors.
One thing’s for sure – the winter garden certainly doesn’t have to be dull!