A few flowers in winter go a long way to raising the spirits, once winter reduces most of the garden to bare earth and twigs. A well-placed container in a sheltered position can shine like a beacon of hope, so brighten up key parts of your garden by visiting the garden centre to see what’s on offer.
Hardiness varies though, so some things will battle through exceptionally cold weather and re-bloom in spring. Others will perish and never return, so these are treated as bedding. Planted for a season and then chucked away.
Small pots of outdoor cyclamen are always available but the showiest ones, with marbled round leaves and largish bright-red, pink and white flowers, are bred from a less-hardy species called C. persicum.
Hard weather kills them and they rarely return, so careful positioning is really, really important. If you have an enclosed cool porch that faces north or west, they will flourish because they’ll have protection from the worst of the weather. Or you could have them in a sheltered outdoor position and fleece them with heavy duty material on cold nights.
It’s worth it, because these cyclamen will produce hundreds of flowers if happy. There are red-flowered forms which are very festive, but no red cyclamen is fully hardy.
At the end of the season these cyclamen are best thrown away having given months of non-stop flower if protected.
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Truly hardy cyclamen are also available in garden centres too and Cyclamen coum flowers in spring. It’s more diminutive with short stems of magenta-nosed flowers that come in various shades of pink and white, but there are no bright-reds.
The rounded foliage can be silvered, marbled or plain green, so there’s lots of variation, and it’s worth having a really good look through them all because they vary.
You can grow C.coum in a shallow container en masse, mix it amongst other plants, or put them into an open part of the border.
C. coum needs the sun to flower well and, if happy, this spring-flowering hardy cyclamen will go on for years. However the corms will never get larger than an inch or so across.
They do spread though because ants roll the seeds around as they lick the sticky coating off. More will pop up once you have them - although not always where you want them!
You will also find autumn-flowering cyclamen (C. hederifolium) in the garden centres and these are entirely different beasts because the corms live for many years and can get to dinner-plate size.
For this reason it’s a good idea not to plant them close to the spring-flowering C. coum because those large corms will edge the smaller ones out.
Autumn-flowering cyclamen have the best foliage of all and their name, C. hederifolium, means ivy-leaved. They are fabulous in winter, with leaves like snowflakes on bare earth, so use these as foliage plants.
The flowers pop up in late-August and September, before the foliage appears, so they add autumn magic. Naked ladies signalling the shift between summer and autumn.
Find out how to grow Cyclamen coum
If the weather’s clement winter-flowering pansies, which come in a huge range of colours, perform for many months. However if it’s a cold winter they do a stop-start flowering regime and may get ragged.
They are fully hardy, so if cut back they will re-bloom, so you will always get a show from winter pansies although the timing can be a little unreliable.
Mostly pansies have rounded flowers and often have black markings too.
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Winter-flowering violas are hardier than winter pansies in my experience and they have smaller flowers with a distinctive butterfly arrangement of petals above a tongue-shaped lower petal.
They look more like ‘wildings’ than pansies do and they tend to be leggier too. Often the flowers have a mixture of two or three colours, although not always. There are trailing varieties, suitable for containers or hanging baskets, and Thompson & Morgan have Viola Allspice Mixed.
Violas have an added advantage over pansies: they are often more scented, although breeding is blurring the edges between the pansy and the viola year on year.
Do explore the range of colours because orange-toned pansies go well with blue muscari, or rust-coloured grasses such as Carex testacea. Blues and lavenders mix well with yellow miniature narcissi. Or you can go for a riot of colour and mix them up.
Find out what to plant in a winter container
Double primroses can be generally be bought in the autumn and there are some good hardy seed forms such as Belarina.
The double forms have rosettes of flower and you can use them in containers and then replant them in the ground. These can be bought as plugs or ready grown in pots.
You will also find named doubles such as the silver-edged blue ‘Miss Indigo’, the purple ‘Marie Crousse’ and the white ‘Dawn Ansell’. Many doubles are micro-propagated because they set no seed at all. However being sterile allows them to flower for much longer.
However, a word of warning. Micro-propagated plugs are often potted into peaty compost which dries out faster. Shake off as much as you can and plant in loam-based John Innes which will hold water and nutrients far better.
These double primroses can be used in single pots, on a plant theatre against the house, or in containers or in the garden.
Modern breeding has produced a plethora of strong colours so primroses, which will come into their own in early spring, are justly popular. However some strains have enormous flowers and those do not sit happily in the country garden. Look carefully and, if your garden is rather natural, opt for the pallid-yellow native primrose P. vulgaris.
Primroses are soft-stemmed so do check for vine weevil when you buy. Upend the pot and examine the roots. A healthy plant will have a network of roots that covers the entire surface. One nibbled by vine weevil will have gaps in the root structure and these are clearly visible.
Find out how to grow primroses
Polyanthus are flowers in the Primula family which have a stem topped with many flowers, hence their name - literally ‘many flowers’. They hold their flowers above the ground in winter and spring and this helps the flowers to stay more pristine.
This makes them very suitable for containers and window boxes. Some are scented, which is always good in early spring because scented plants are favoured by bees.
The colour range is equally wide and many polyanthus have a darker rim to the flower, making them rather auricula-like to look at. However they are far easier to grow than auriculas and a simple round pot on a garden table will look good for several weeks.
Double daisies, or Bellis perennis, have pom-poms of flower that resemble soft buttons. They come in daisy colours such as white, pink-white and reddish pink and I always like to buy them in flower because they do vary in form. They make excellent bedding plants, particularly when used with spiky plants such as the black-foliage plant Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’.
This creates drama in a pot when used with all reds whether they’re double daisies, red cyclamen or red. They’re also good with dark tulips, although slugs do like to roost in them so do frisk them.
Although many need acid-soil to thrive in the garden long term, these do survive a season in a pot of loam-based compost.
Many winter-flowering heathers are grown in almost-pure sand and this should be left intact and dropped into the pot. Mix pink and white heathers together, or go for a deep-pink.
Find out how to grow winter-flowering heathers
Winter bedding is a chance to be creative. If your garden is warm and sheltered you could fill a wire basket, or a wicker basket with bedding. If it’s colder though stick to rugged terracotta, stone or wood because this will protect the roots. Do be prepared to fleece in cold weather.
If you’ve got white walls, go vivid on the plant front because pale colours will look wishy washy. If you’re a red-brick person strike a contrast with blues and purples. Or if it’s grey stone warm it up with reds. If you prefer a riot of colour, go for it.
Use coloured stems or pussy willow, often available from florists, and push the twigs into the soil to provide an upright presence. Or weave coloured willow stems through your arrangement to form a dome perhaps, or a colourful border round the pot.
It all helps you to enjoy your garden in winter!
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