Turning your garden into a winter wonderland

A touch of frost and a hazy shade of winter can transform your garden, says Peter Dowdall

Winter brings a beauty all of its own to the garden. While it may not be as showy or as flouncy as the colour which is visible during the summer months, there is subtle yet dramatic beauty all around us during these months. 

Yes, it’s there but sometimes we may need to stop and pause for a moment to see it.

That beauty is in the straw coloured stems of ornamental grasses like Miscanthus as it stands frozen, covered in hoary frost in the early mornings. It’s the sunlight as it sits, low in the sky casting its winter bright rays upon a certain feature in the garden. This may only last for minutes as the sun drops in the sky so quickly at this time of the year.

It’s the sight of a raindrop clinging to a bare stem on a Japanese Maple, and then when you stop to admire the stem structure of the Acer you become amazed at how beautiful it is and how you may have never noticed it before.

Not everything needs to be fully dressed to be beautiful, a naked birch tree for example shouldn’t be discounted just because it’s not in leaf at present. On the contrary, is it not shining brighter now, that you can see its exquisite white bark and intricate stem detail against the wintery sky.

So too the Snakebark Maple, Acer capillipes whose bark becomes like snakeskin as it matures. This magnificent natural pattern is shrouded during the other seasons covered by foliage.

The dogwoods or Cornus species are grown nearly exclusively for winter interest though their foliage during the summer and autumn is also lovely. It is now however, as their coloured stems are entirely visible growing profusely from the ground up, that they come into their own. Admire the mass plantings of these on the motorways of Ireland particularly on the M8 near Kildare but please don’t get so distracted as to forget about road safety.

It’s not all about barks and stem interest, as there are many plants that will be in flower during the winter months. Mahonia, Helleborus, Sarcoccoca, Skimmias to name but a few, will be giving of their best during the month of December and beyond. Winter bedding too, the likes of cyclamen, pansies, variegated ivies and early primula will create stunning floral displays in pots and borders during this season. Try mixing this bedding with more permanent features such as heathers, ornamental grasses and Heucheras to benefit from the different textures.

Some of my absolute favourites in the garden will come into bloom this month. Keep an eye out for the relatively uncommon Chimonanthus praecox or wintersweet with its beautiful waxy and strongly scented flowers which will be produced on naked stems from now on.

The flower buds on Edgeworthia will burst into life before the leaves emerge next spring, although these flowers probably won’t appear until January and maybe even February, again bringing a wonderful scent to the garden.

Daphne Jacqueline Postill is different in that she is evergreen but again she brings wonderful fragrance to the garden, if a bit later on in the season. The witch hazels too will set your garden alight during these dark months with unusual strap like petals and even more scent. I have written about all of these winter beauties in the past but one that I can’t believe that I have not yet mentioned, for it is surely one of the finest, is the Stachyurus praecox.

One of the highlights of the December and January garden Stachyurus praecox is a large deciduous shrub growing to between 3 and 4m in height with a spreading habit. A well grown specimen will produce masses of bell shaped flowers which will be coming into bloom now, hanging in 10-12cm long racemes from each stem.

Creamy yellow in colour, a shrub in full bloom is quite the sight to behold and a real showstopper in the winter garden. Like so many of the winter beauties, the flowers are on naked stems and so aren’t competing with the leaves for our attention. Also, similar to the aforementioned witch hazel it will also provide you with a fantastic autumn display as the leaves change to their seasonal hue before falling and allowing the flowers centre stage.

Most suited to a woodland type situation with an acid to neutral soil, the Stachyurus will certainly perform better the more sunlight it can get, on a good humus rich soil so don’t feel compelled to clean up those leaves once they do fall as there truly is no better soil conditioner and fertiliser.


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