Look for a silver lining in the garden

Finding suitable plants to provide colour and biodiversity in your garden is ideal as we head into winter.

Peter Dowdall looks at the Silver Bush and other plants suitable for the winter garden.

A plant is not just for Christmas — even more so if it’s the silver shrub called Calocephalus brownii.

This is a small shrub native to Australia and of note due to its silvery grey colouring.

Referred to, in some parts, by its common name, Silver Bush, its tiny leaves and stems are all silver in colour which makes it a great plant to use in winter bedding displays in pots, baskets and containers.

It’s colouring contrasts dramatically and beautifully with other strong colours, be that the dark green foliage of plants like Skimmia and Ivy or the bright flowers of Cyclamen and Violas.

It’s full of texture too, its nice, open, airy, nearly prickly looking form contrasts fabulously with ornamental grasses, plant it with Festuca ‘Intense Blue’ for a cool coloured, seasonal display.

However, as I say this plant isn’t just a valuable addition to the winter garden.

The fact that it is native to Australia gives a bit of a hint to its other valuable attribute as does its colouring.

It’s drought tolerant and thus if we face into a prolonged drought or even a hosepipe ban once more next year, then this will survive with flying colours adding interest and colour throughout the year.

Calocephalus is a small plant, rarely growing higher than about 60cm or 2ft in height with a spread of about 30cm or 12-16 inches.

Two things that it doesn’t like about our climate though are the amount of rainfall we get and temperatures below freezing, so ensure that you grow it in a well-drained soil and protect, if necessary from extremely low temperatures.

This is why it so popular in containers and baskets as these are free draining and often near houses, and are relatively warm.

Even though the weather has been so warm and fine right into October, it is nonetheless time, to think of winter displays and this is just one of the many options available.

I mentioned Skimmia and this is also a great plant for colour for the next few months. It is the female forms which berry and the males that flower.

One of the varieties which will give the greatest show during this season is Skimmia ‘Rubella’. Its dark coloured buds are now formed and these in themselves are a feature of the plant before they open up during early spring into scented white flowers.

There are self-fertile forms available too which will provide flowers and berries on the same plant.

‘Temptation’ and ‘Obsession’ are two forms worth looking for to provide colour and interest over, dare I mention it so early, the Christmas period.

Skimmia ‘Magic Marlot’ is a very low growing male form which won’t berry but has the added feature of being strongly variegated and planted quite simply on its own in a small pot will look superb.

Berried plants such as these Skimmias, Hollies, Callicarpa and Pyracantha not only provide aesthetic beauty in our gardens over the winter season but they are also vitally important in terms of biodiversity, providing food for birds and other wildlife and ultimately that’s what our gardens should be doing.

The fact that they are attractive and pleasing to look at it is of secondary importance.

Winter in the garden can be every bit as beautiful and dramatic as the other months but it’s not always flowers that produce that colour.

Other berried plants which can grow in containers and will benefit wildlife include, Malus or Crab Apple species, Hypericums, Viburnums, and cotoneasters.

If you fancy making your own wintergreen oil for use on muscle pains or as a tea then you can grow the very attractive Gaultheria procumbens. Do, of course, seek professional advice before using any herbal remedy from the garden.

Cyclamens are one of the best to provide flower colour but be careful when choosing your plants at the garden centre.

They are prone to suffering from a fungal rot at the base of the plant. This can be caused by too much watering and sitting in waterlogged soil.

Look for any signs of infection or rot when you’re buying the plants and if they look suspect then leave them behind you because it will spread quickly and can’t be cured once you get them home.

While the red and white Cyclamen do look stunning in the run-up to December 25, they are often as welcome as the Christmas tree in the first week of January, so instead maybe use some of the pink and white forms which will brighten up the garden for a few months and are not synonymous with just one day of the year.

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