Plants For Winter Gardens

This week, I visited Anglesey Abbey, just outside Cambridge, and the University Botanic Garden. The back end of winter might seem a strange time to visit gardens. Spring plants are not yet in full growth and many winter-interest plants are almost over. But I was pleasantly surprised. There were wonderful winter borders to enjoy – Angelsey Abbey is famous for its winter garden – and plenty of unusual exotics to discover in the greenhouses at the Botanic Garden.

A few special plants and some combinations really stood out. They could give your garden fantastic interest in winter, providing both colour and fabulous scent, at the dullest time of year. I’d suggest planting most of these close-ish to the house, or near to paths and entrances that you use regularly. That way, you can enjoy them without having to head into the deepest parts of your garden on cold, wet days.

Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’

I didn’t understand the appeal of Daphnes until I inhaled the fabulous scent of this pretty shrub at the entrance to Cambridge Botanic’s winter garden. As well as its pretty, pale pink, pompom flower clusters, held against the background of mid-green leaves, it has the most delightful sugary sweet fragrance that reminded me of old fashioned drawer-liners. Plus, its name has a wonderfully romantic history. In Greek mythology, Daphne was a beautiful river naiad who was saved from the unwanted attentions of the god Apollo by being transformed into a laurel tree.

Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’

Also known as the silk tassel bush, this shrub is non-descript for most of the year. But for months, from late autumn to spring, it is bedecked with impressive long silvery catkins, that hang amongst waxy, dark green leaves that have crinkly edges and a pleasing chalky underside.

Salix irrorata

This willow has both colourful stems and lovely, fluffy catkins. The slender, purplish, young stems are coated with a grey-white bloom, and contrast with the soft catkins which have a hint of pink. It’s a plant you just have to stroke. At the Botanic Garden, it’s planted in a large group in front of an even larger group of dogwoods, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’. The effect was striking.

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’

This is a popular viburnum that has fragrant flowers carried in clusters on bare stems from late autumn through to spring. The flowers begin dark pink and gradually age to a white-flushed pink. At Angelsey, they are underplanted with the neat, evergreen variegated euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’, which has been cloud pruned. It’s a simple but perfect planting combination.

Bergenia ‘Bressingham Beauty’

Bergenias are commonly known as Elephant’s ears due to their large, leathery leaves. You’ve probably seen the standard green-leaved varieties before. This one has deep mahogany, red-tinted leaves. It’s a hard working, tough plant that will grow in most situations, flowering in early spring. It looked especially good in Angelsey’s winter garden interplanted with the narrow leaves and chestnut tones of Carex flagellifera, and early daffodils. This simple planting combination would be ideal for a lightly shaded, low-maintenance border, under a small deciduous tree such as…

Prunus serrula

The Tibetan cherry tree, Prunus serrula, is a star of any garden in winter. Its trunk and stems shine a deep rich mahogany, scarred with corky lenticels. It’s a tree I’m desperate to find a home for in my garden. At the Botanic Garden, it is underplanted with snowdrops, winter aconites and Rubus thibetanus ‘Silver Fern’. The Rubus is an ornamental bramble. Its powdery white canes sprawl, forming a silvery tangled web. I’m not keen to have the lethal thorns of this ghost bramble in my borders, but it looked wonderful in that setting.

At the end of the winter walk is one of the most jaw-dropping sights at Angelsey Abbey – a copse of one hundred Himalayan silver birches, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, with stark, bone-white trunks. They actually water-blast the trees here to keep the bark looking perfectly white, and you can wash your own birch tree if you have one, to help it look good over winter. I’d love to have the space for a silver birch copse in my garden! Maybe one day…

I hope I’ve given you some inspiration for your garden. I certainly came away from my day in Cambridge with lots of new ideas for mine. And now is a good time to think about putting in some new plants to give your garden some zing next winter, before you get carried away thinking about spring and summer planting.

Angelsey Abbey, Cambridgeshire