Bare branches of ‘ordinary’ trees can look quite extraordinary, especially if dusted with snow. Leaves, stems and seedpods, which are hardly noticed when a plant is in full flower, become the centre of attention when outlined with a sparkle of frost. When planning to introduce new plants don’t forget to find out what different species will look like in winter.
When luxuriant summer foliage has died down, the underlying shapes of the garden can be seen more easily. Stand back and try to pick out the main shapes of both hard and soft landscaping. Taking photographs or making a simple sketch can help.
If beds, borders, lawns, hedges etc. are mostly square or rectangular consider the difference introducing a few curves might make. Likewise, a tall angular shape could give an interesting visual lift to a planting scheme of predominantly soft, rounded shapes.
Unless you live in a very mild area – or have exceptionally green fingers – you won’t be able to produce floral displays as vibrant and varied as those of summer. A window box or tub near your door planted with winter-flowering pansies is the easiest way to provide a bright welcome to visitors.
Most plants that flower in the coldest months tend to have small, paler flowers but that doesn’t make them any less attractive. Light colours show up well against dark backgrounds and seem to reflect even the weakest winter sun.
Snowdrops are an obvious choice, although choosing from the hundred or so available varieties can be confusing! The common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is one of the earliest to flower in January, while others are more likely to appear in February or March. Winter-flowering heathers, hardy cyclamens (Cyclamen coum) and hellebores can also be relied on to flower early.
In spite of its name, the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) rarely blooms at Christmas but it is well worth waiting for its large, white flowers to appear from January to March.
Tree bark also comes in a wide range of colours. Most people can recognise a silver birch (Betula pendula) by its white trunk, but it also has many attractive cousins such as the hardy river birch (Betula nigra) which has peeling, cinnamon-coloured bark. Many acers reveal colourful and patterned barks once they’ve shed their beautiful autumn leaves.
If you haven’t enough room for trees, perhaps you could find space for some dogwood. There are many varieties, all with colourful stems ranging from yellow to deep red and almost black.
What’s better than flowers in midwinter? Scented flowers! Many early-flowering shrubs bloom from December and smell wonderful! If you plant your favourites near your door or alongside your most-used paths you can enjoy them every time you go outside. Some of the most popular are Wintersweet, Mahonia, Viburnum, Winter jasmine, Witch hazel and Winter honeysuckle, all of which have several varieties.
Winter is the time when many people become more aware of the wildlife in their gardens. It’s easier to see birds in the branches of bare trees, and tracks left in snow give clues to unseen night visitors. A harsh winter often makes normally shy creatures venture closer to houses in search of food so this is the best time to encourage them.
A well-stocked bird table or hanging feeders placed within easy view of your windows can attract a surprising number of species. As well as entertaining you with their antics, birds will reward you for your generosity by searching the rest of your garden for overwintering insects and soil pests. Why not help them further by putting up some nest boxes in readiness for spring? It won’t be long!