Give your garden some winter sparkle

Val Bourne

Great ideas on making your garden look extra special in winter

A well-placed container close to a doorway, window or path really makes an impact, especially once winter begins to pare the garden back to basics. But you must use a robust, frost-hardy container. Soil-based John Innes no 3 compost is also a must. It doesn’t dry out and it’s heavy enough to act as ballast in winter gales.

Opt for one substantial container rather than lots of smaller ones. Try to match the style and colour to your house. Once the pot is chosen, limit the plant height to two-thirds of the height of the pot - although shallow containers will need lower planting.

Shopping for plants

Look for the ‘Miss Worlds’ of the nursery bench and ignore any with battered leaves or shabby branches. Gather together the best you can find in one trolley - choosing more foliage plants than flowering plants as sumptuous leaves are much more important in winter than flowers. When you’ve assessed what’s available, decide on your foliage theme. Golden plants light up shade and go very well with blues. Rich greens vibrate in winter light and they look best with reds and cool whites.

Identify a key or star plant. It could be a handsome grass or a stunning holly that’s taken your eye. Place this in the trolley and then vary the textures by choosing a mixture of strappy leaves, larger bold leaves, divided ferny foliage and tiny-leaved plants still adhering to the foliage theme.

Leave a space to enable you to add a succession of miniature bulbs, single heathers and cyclamen. Always buy more plants than you think you’ll need. Any leftovers can be added to the borders.

Before you plant

Position the pot before you plant as once the soil and plants are added the weight may be too great to move it afterwards. If the drainage hole is small stand the pot on three pot feet to aid drainage.

Arranging plants

Start off by placing your key plant on the ground and arrange your chosen plants around it roughly in the shape of the container. Look at each plant individually and make sure that the plant is showing its best side (most plants have a ‘back’ and a ‘front’).

Fill the container about two thirds full. Remove the key plant from its pot by pressing firmly on the pot base and gently upending it. Check the root ball: if the roots are potbound, gently tease them out and straighten them. Position the key plant in the soil in a central position (it doesn’t have to be completely in the middle), with the top of the root ball 1/2in (1cm) below the rim of the pot. Arrange the other plants quickly -to avoid damaging foliage and then carefully back fill with compost and then water.

Most containers with hardy plants will last for two to three years and then the plants can be added to the garden.

Suitable plants for winter containers

Evergreen shrubs

  • Sarcococca confusa scented evergreen with shiny pointed leaves and highly scented, ivory-white bundles of stamens.
  • Skimmia x confusa 'Kew Green' - large, conical heads of pale green buds.
  • Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' - clusters of wine-red buds.
  • Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana - crimson-red fruits.
  • Viburnum tinus - clusters of pale pink or white flowers.
  • Aucuba japonica ‘Crotonifolia’ - high-gloss plant with large green leaves liberally speckled with bright gold.
  • Hebe 'Emerald Gem' (syn. 'Green Globe') - invaluable, tight bun-shaped mound of tiny bright green leaves.
  • Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentia' (Hedgehog holly) compact, slow-growing male holly with prickles all over the leaf .
  • Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia' - a dense, neat male holly with purple shoots and small elliptical, dark-green leaves edged in spines.
  • Ilex aquifolium 'Green Pillar' - an upright slender female with dark-green leaves and red berries.
  • Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Gulftide' a slow-growing, holly look alike with twisted leaves dark-green leaves and fragrant white flowers.
  • Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' holly like leaves mottled in green and yellow.
  • Hedera helix - ivies in a range of leaf shapes and foliage colours.

Stems and skeletons

  • Cornus alba 'Kesselringii' - dogwood with purple-black stems.
  • Cornus alba 'Sibirica' (syn 'Westonbirt') - the brightest red dogwood.
  • Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Beauty' - twiggy orange and red stems.
  • Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' - straight, substantial, olive-green stems.
  • Corylus avellana 'Contorta' - corkscrew stems and catkins.

Leafy perennials

  • Bergenia 'Bressingham Ruby' - large, glossy leaves.
  • Helleborus foetidus 'Wester Flisk Group' - green flowers and finely divided, matt foliage touched with red.
  • Heuchera - scalloped leaves in a range of colours - sometimes veined.
  • Polypodium vulgare - the most rugged of the evergreen ferns.
  • Vinca minor 'Atropurpurea' (lesser periwinkle) - trailing plant with plum-purple flowers.

Grass-like foliage

  • Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' - erect fountain of green and gold.
  • Carex morrowii 'Variegata' - solid olive-green leaves margined in cream.
  • Carex testacea - a tightly-waisted swirl of olive-green to brown fine leaves with tints of orange.
  • Luzula sylvatica 'Aurea' - soft, butter-yellow rosette of strappy leaves.
  • Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' - low-growing black strappy leaves - excellent with red flowers.

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