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Lighten the gloom: Part 2 - Other plant options

Conifers have been sneered at by the gardening fashionistas for a long time, but they are unrivalled for giving a garden colour, structure and texture during the winter. Whether you choose green, grey, blue or golden yellow, conifers will bring interest to the garden and also give cover to small birds overnight and in bad weather. Some, like Cryptomeria japonica, change colour in winter from green to a glowing purple-bronze, then go back to green again in spring. Many conifers have fragrant foliage if you crush a few leaves, including pine and Thuja, which smells of oranges. This is ideal for adding a fresh scent to an indoor flower arrangement or Christmas table centre. Unfortunately, there are a few conifers you would not wish to have indoors, including juniper because the scent of the foliage is usually likened to cat's pee. TIP: It's important to read the label to check the ultimate size before you buy, because conifers labelled “slow-growing” may still eventually end up being quite big. Look for the word “dwarf” for the truly small varieties.


Plants like holly will grow into trees, given long enough, but for a quicker impact, look for Prunus x subhirtella or its pink form ‘Autumnalis Rosea' for it's pretty little cherry-blossom flowers, produced during warmer spells throughout the autumn, winter and into the spring. Prunus ‘Beni-chidori' is a small deciduous tree that produces stunning deep-pink, highly fragrant blossom in late winter to early spring. Many trees have interesting bark that will add interest in winter, including Japanese Acers like ‘Sango-Kaku' (the coral-bark maple). The snake-bark maples like Acer pensylvanicum (green) and its form A.p. erythrocladum (pink) are stunning, as is the glossy bark of Prunus serrula, which glows rich red in the winter sun. Silver birch will also add interest with its white bark, especially a form such as ‘Grayswood Ghost'.

TIP: For the best colour, clean the bark of the tree regularly with water and a soft brush to remove any moss or algae.

Bulbs and corms

Plant bulbs beneath deciduous shrubs and trees for colour while the plant above is bare. By the time the leaves appear above, the bulbs will be dying down, so you can even plant in drier areas of the garden. Planting bulbs and corms into containers for at least the first year means you can move them near the door or window where you can appreciate them without having to venture outside. After they have flowered, allow them to die down naturally and then plant them in the garden to enjoy over coming years. Plant cyclamen, winter aconites, snowdrops, iris, crocus, Muscari, narcissus, Leucojum and tulips for a succession of flowers from September through until May.

TIP: For a good display every year, give the plants a liquid feed as the flowers die off. The dying leaves take the food down into the bulb ready for a healthy start the following year. Always let the leaves die down naturally so they nourish the bulb.


Hellebores are reliable performers that will flower through the winter months and come in a wide range of flower colours. Bergenia varieties will add both foliage and flower colour in the early months of the year, as will Pulmonaria, depending on your location. Leaving the foliage on perennials that flower in summer, such as Crocosmia, gives texture to the garden and also provides a shelter for small creatures like hedgehogs.

TIP: Remove the old foliage of hellebores in autumn to let the new leaves and flower stems through.


There are more flowering climbers for the winter months than you might imagine. One of the best is the evergreen, fern-leaved Clematis cirrhosa and its many forms, like ‘Freckles' and ‘Jingle Bells', which produce their pretty, dangling bell-shaped (and lightly fragrant) blooms throughout the winter - and often intermittently during the whole year as well. Clematis armandii (pictured) is also evergreen, prefers slightly more shelter and flowers slightly later as winter turns to spring. It's star-shaped flowers are often quite heavily-scented. Slightly less common are Clematis napaulensis and C. urophylla ‘Winter Beauty'.

TIP: Clematis cirrhosa is an ideal choice for covering a shed or fence because it grows strongly. Tie in the new growth to save it being damaged in windy weather.

Seed heads and berries

If you leave the seed heads on some of your plants, like hydrangea or fennel, rather than ruthlessly cutting everything down in autumn, you will be rewarded by some wonderful effects as frost dusts the tops and spiders create dew-spangled webs. The birds will also appreciate the seeds left on plants like lavender over winter as well as any rose hips. Pyracantha and Cotoneaster berries not only look good, they provide food for birds through the cold months.

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This story was published on: 24/11/2018

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