For Peter Dowdall, the quintessential plant for the season ahead has to be skimmia
Is there anything more beautiful in a garden than a pot filled with colour during the winter months? Sure, these same pots can be equally, if not maybe more, colourful during the summer months but it seems like we need them more at this time of the year.
During the summer, the garden and the landscape in general is awash with colour. Everything is giving of their best during high summer, plants are flowering, trees are full of leaf and life and insects are buzzing all around under the sunshine and blue skies during the long days of June and July. Bedding plants and hanging baskets can be seen as additions to the colour garden in high season.
In the winter, there is much less vibrancy and floral colour in the garden and a pot or container filled with flowers and foliage at the front or back door may be as much as we get to see of the garden as we rush from the car to the home under dark skies and wet evenings. Nice to be welcomed by a bright and cheerful presence at the entrance. If ever we need a lift it’s over the next few months as the weather deteriorates and the nights close in much too early.
For me, the quintessential winter-interest plant has to be the skimmia. The variety ‘Rubella’ produces male flowers during the early spring, white in colour and strongly scented. The flower buds form during August and September and are really very attractive during the winter.
Perhaps the best plants to provide flower colour in pots during this season are the bedding cyclamen. Not to be confused with the hardier and more perennial Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen coum, these seasonal plants are what you see in garden centres throughout the country at the moment. They are available in a range of colours, pink, white, red and various variations thereof. The red and whites are particularly synonymous with December and that Celebration which we enjoy on the 25th, far too early to refer to it by name yet.
I really like the pink forms too though, as they seem to brighten up the autumn and winter evenings, reflecting the light less brightly than the white and more vibrant than the reds. Also, while the red and white may be as welcome as that extra mince pie or piece of cold turkey come the 2nd of January, the pinks are a delight whenever they appear.
Ensure that you get good, disease free plants wherever you buy them and you should have colour from now right into the spring. Do take care however, if you buy them from a centrally heated indoor shop as they may struggle being plunged directly outdoors during an Irish winter.
Beautiful as these cyclamen are, they may as well be artificial in terms of providing food for bees and other pollinators about during the low season. Many intensively hybridised plants have been developed for better flower colour or longevity of bloom but at the expense of pollen production.
A far better option if sustaining bees and other wildlife is your goal is to use some flowering heathers. There are dozens if not hundreds of winter flowering forms and many growers now produce pots with more than one plant in each. The result is a very colourful mixture of shades of pink and white.
These are totally hardy in our climate and will return each year, though I would plant them out into the garden next spring, after they have flowered. Heathers sold as Twin Girls will contain two varieties per pot and other brand names will contain similar or more. They will most likely be in full flower in garden centres now so it will be quite clear as to what you are getting.
Take care where you purchase, as moving any plant from the indoors to cope with what an Irish winter will throw at it can be a big and often, too big, an ask.
I do like to use a foliage plant or two in amongst the flowers to provide further interest. Cordylines, such as the cultivar ‘Pink Passion’ will bring a lovely airy texture to the mixture along with bright, pink and white coloured foliage, and provide some height at the centre of the pot.
Fatsia ‘Spider’s Web’ is a very structural plant with its deeply lobed leaves of green, dramatically mottled with white variegation. It’s loved by the bees during spring and summer as they feed on the flowers and smaller birds will feast on the brown/black berries on the plant during the winter.
Plant Skimmia ‘Rubella’ or one of the self-fertile forms, such as Skimmia ‘Temptation’ in the centre of a pot and surround with red and white cyclamen flanked with some trailing ivy for a beautiful, living display for that feast on the 25th which remains nameless for now.