Best Winter Garden Plants
It's not just keen gardeners who plants which are good or at their best during winter, most people appreciate a plant which cheers up the often gloomy weather or which manages to produce flowers in December and entice us into believing that spring is just round the corner.
I have chosen plants for you which have impressed me over several winters with their winter appeal and which provide some cheer even when the sun is refusing to show through clouds. Some of these are even plants that you might be a little disdainful of in the summer when there is a panoply of showy, beautiful plants and flowers to chose from, but come winter they are still there and having their turn at being the belle of the ball.
I have by and large left out conifers which is slightly unfair, but I feel that on the whole they are best as a foil for the showier plants or an architectural statement. Apologies to conifer lovers.
Winter Flowering Mahonia
This variety will also give you yellow flowers in winter
A winter flower is a flower to cherish. We can't expect all our plants to supply them, but we can thoroughly enjoy those that do. For maximum enjoyment it is worth planting your winter flowering shrubs where you can see them from your house windows especially at the front of the house where you will walk past them almost every day as you leave to go to work.
Mahonia - These can give a really good display of bright yellow flowers against evergreen foliage. My favourites are Mahonia x media 'Charity' listed by the RHS as hardy down to 23°f and Mahonia japonica hardy to 5°f with no trouble at all. A good pairing is mahonia with an upright cotoneaster - The yellow flowers and red berries set each other off nicely.
Winter Jasmine (Jasmine nudiflorium) - Another yellow winter flower. As the Latin name describes, the plant is bare of leaves in winter, but the flowers lift the spirits gleaming from a fence or house wall. It can stand alone, but is better with grown against something.
Skimmia japonica - There are white and red flowered varieties producing flowers followed by berries, and sometimes both are present together for part of the winter.
Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' - during milder periods of winter the pink buds will open and you will enjoy the flowers scent. Although the plant is hardy down to 5°f you won't derive the most benefit in winter from it if your winters are mostly snow filled and solidly cold, but they are great in a British winter of cold spells interspersed with damper warmer weather.
Bright variegated foliage throughout the winter
Variegated or Colourful Foliage
All plants which keep their leaves in winter give the eye some pleasure, but those which are variegated or have colourful leaves are a bonus. I have to be honest and admit that during the rest of the year I am a bit dismissive of variegated evergreens, but I find myself enjoying them again each winter.
Evergreen Euonymus - there are plenty of evergreen Euonymus to choose from, but it is worth checking the temperature which each variety is hardy to and purchase accordingly. Eunoymus japonicus is hardy to 23°f, but Euonymus fortunei is hardy to 5°f or lower. There are deciduous euonymus too which will provide a good autumn show of leaves and berries but are of less value to the winter garden.
Variegated Holly (Ilex) - Holly is a plant that keeps on giving in winter and whilst you can't rely on a bush or tree to produce berries 100% reliably you will definitely get a leafy show of colour from the variegated varieties in winter. Some have green and white leaves, others green and gold.. Examples include Ilex belgica aurea and Ilex camelifolia variegata.
Evergreen Photinia - the ones which provide best winter value have young growth which is red, giving an effect a little like a poinsettia. These include Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin' and Photinia serratifolia. They are not a plant to select if you have very harsh winters but are hardy to 20°f.
Variegated Ivy (Hedera helix) - There are large and small leaved varieties and they can be variegated with yellow or white. The variegated varieties are not as hardy or fast growing as the all green ones. They are mostly hardy to 20°f. Varieties include Hedera helix 'Anne Marie' and Hedera helix 'Goldheart'.
Dual Purpose Holly
A great species for variegation and berries
Berries which remain on the plant though winter are a welcome show and I covered some excellent species in an earlier article so shall mention just two species here. Many are attractive to birds which is at once both a bonus and ever so slightly a bane of the gardener's life when anticipating a winter long show of berries she finds her pyracanthas have been denuded by blackbirds early in the season.
Holly (Ilex) - gets another mention here. Often the green leaved rather than variegated ones berry most reliably but you need a female with a fairly nearby male or a self fertilising variety for this. If you are determined to have your own holly berries for a Christmas display in the house, you may wish to follow my father's example and loosely attach a plastic bag to a berry laden branch or two early in the season, so the birds can't get to them.
Cotoneaster - cotoneaster berries are often ignored by birds, so provide a good show throughout winter as can be seen in the mahonia and cotoneaster picture in the flower section.
Red Barked Cornus
An excellent variety for bright red stems
Shrubby Dogwood (Cornus) - shrubby dogwoods have long been popular for the colour of the new stem growth in red, orange, pink or lime green. To get this effect you need to cut back some or all of the old stems in early spring so that there is fresh growth from the base of the plant for the following winter. Good examples are Cornus alba 'Sibirica' with red stems Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' with lime green stems and Cornus sanguiea 'Midwinter Fire' with orangey stems.
Silver Birch (Betula pendula) - The white bark of a silver birch is especially lovely on a sunny winters day against a blue sky, but is welcome even on a dull day. If you have room for one - great, but if you have room for a small group - even better - that will really look superb. If during the year you find a powdery algae on some of the bark you may want to give it a bit of a clean with some warm water and a washing up brush to take it back to pristine white. Alternatively you might think that sounds a bit of a faff and leave it be!
Himalayan Birch - is also worth considering; there are varieties with white or reddish bark and coming from the Himalayas they are exceptionally hardy.
Cherry (Prunus) - some of the cherry family have attractive bark for winter interest. Examples include Prunus maackii with tan coloured bark and Prunus serrula with coppery red bark
Many of the winter berrying plants, such as pyracantha and holly are a boon to birds and have been covered earlier. However it is worth mentioning some species which can help wildlife for other reasons.
Ivy (Hedera helix) - mentioned already in variegated form, it is the plain green original species which is great for wildlife. It is also hardier being fine to 5°f and lower. The winter flowers, though not very showy are good for any nectar seeking insects that are out and about. They are followed by berries for the birds and throughout the winter the dense glossy leaves provide excellent shelter for small birds.
Conifers - It is being a bit generalistic to lump a large group of species together, but for the purposes of winter wildlife a medium to large sized evergreen conifer is what we want. Again, like the ivy these will provide excellent shelter during wet and cold nights. I once lived near a row of the much maligned Leylandii cyprus which had been planted as a shelterbelt. A huge flock (known as a murmuration) of starlings spent their winter nights amidst it and delighted me with their flight displays before roosting each evening.
With a few exceptions plant seed heads look rather drab on a damp or sunless winter day, but they are brought to life by frost or a light covering of snow and are then such a joy that they are worth having for this alone. A bonus is that the seedheads provide food for birds too.
One seed head which I think looks great regardless is that of teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) and Siberian iris is quite good too.
For frosted beauty the umbellifer family is hard to beat so if you like to have wild flowers in your garden; cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) or sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) are good for seed heads or you could let the odd carrot or parsnip from your vegetable garden run to seed.