Some plants are emerging from the soil but it's still too early to get carried away, says Peter Dowdall.
We're still in that funny time of the year, aren’t we? Looking forward to spring and all the promise and new growth that comes with it. We’re edging ever closer and many spring and even some summer plants are already emerging from the soil, in a kind of poke-your-nose-out-and-see-what-the-weather’s-like manner.
The days that bring sunshine and even some warmer temperatures encourage us outside and to perhaps take a risk with our planting though we know it is still too early yet to get carried away for before we know it, in an instant, winter can tighten her icy grasp once again and everything which has sprouted early will retreat once more beneath the blanket of soil, happy to go back to sleep until the temperatures stabilise for real.
Winter-flowering plants and those that flower very early in spring are much loved as there are so few that do so relative to later in the spring and in the summer when it seems that all the energy from the soil is bursting out through plant blooms.
While every garden needs the seasonal change provided by summer perennials and spring-flowering bulbs, if everything was transient and died back for the winter then the garden would be incomplete. It needs some consistency to work well and this can be provided by evergreen shrubs.
What these offer to the garden is continuity, some, such as leucothoe may change foliage colour with the seasons; however, most will remain constant throughout the year. They can fade into the background during the high season in the garden but well-chosen specimens can now take centre stage.
Euonymus, that most common of garden genera, doesn’t just provide an evergreen presence for 12 months, their attractive leaf markings and variegations will brighten up the dullest of spaces during these otherwise, perhaps, drab weeks in the garden.
One that I only discovered this winter and I think it’s a relatively new introduction to the gardening world is a real beauty called Euonymus ‘White Spire’. Growing to about 50cm in height and with an upright form it can make a very attractive low-growing hedge if desired or alternatively grow it as an individual specimen in several places throughout the garden.
Green leaves are liberally edged with a bright cream variegation. I’m not always a huge fan of variegated plants though used in the correct way they can and do work very well to bring in that much-needed colour input during the winter.
This euonymus has really tickled my fancy as the colouring is bright enough to be attractive though the shades stop it from being too garish and its habit looks neat and tidy and so it won’t look unkempt and unruly as it matures.
Like most of the euonymus, it will withstand whatever cold an Irish winter will throw at it, growers claim that it will tolerate -15C and lower.
Euonymus ‘Blondy’ on the other hand has dark green leaves with a bright golden splash in the centre. It will grow up to one metre in height with a spread of about 60cm so it will mature into quite a substantial sized shrub. It’s got a more nondescript habit than ‘White Spire’ and not as neat and tidy.
Both of these Euonymus will thrive in nearly all gardens including coastal situations. They will do best in full sun or partial shade with the variegation fading in heavier shade. They will also tolerate all but the most extreme of soil pH, making them a good choice for alkaline or limey soils. I like to use evergreen plants such as these in among summer flowering and seasonal plantings so that there is still something to admire during the quieter, winter months.
I don’t think that ‘White Spire’ will ever be big enough to entice birds to build their nest within though ‘Blondy’ may well do so. Certainly, the larger evergreen shrubs such as ilex, laurus, laurel and many others will offer safe and warm places for our feathered friends to dwell and this too should be thought of when choosing plants for the garden.
Providing such opportunities for the birds isn’t just worth doing so that we can admire them and feel good about ourselves, no, these birds will fit into the rich tapestry and help us be more successful in our gardens by feeding on grubs of many common garden pests such as vine weevil, chafer grubs and cutworms along with some feeding on slugs and snails.
As sure as anything, spring will be here soon, but in the meantime, keep the tender plants and seeds protected and look for some tried-and-tested foliage plants to brighten up the outdoors for now.