February 2020

I still can’t stop thinking about planning for the winter garden even though there are only a few weeks left of winter as I write. I’ve been thinking mostly about scent which is a valuable asset to a garden in any season but it seems particularly important in winter when there is less in the way of bright colours or leaf shapes to catch our eye.

One of my favourite winter scented shrubs is Sweet box (Sarcococca confusa). It has leathery dark green leaves and tiny white flowers which pack a richly fragrant scent followed by shiny black berries. I grow it outside my front door so I can really get the benefit when the rest of the garden is less active.

As if that wasn’t enough, Sweet Box is the plant that just keeps on giving. It prefers to be in shade so if you have a difficult corner or a slope that would benefit from greening up, it makes perfect ground cover as whilst it can grow to a maximum of 2m (six foot) it’s easily kept smaller by pruning and it has a very compact shape. It will also tolerate atmospheric pollution and neglect; as I said, keeps on giving.

There are other super scented shrubs such as Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima); Edgeworthia chrysantha, an amazing scent but not completely hardy here in North Yorkshire so needs a very sheltered spot and Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) with almost transparent, very fragrant flowers on bare stems and of course the vast range of Viburnums with their pink or white flowers and sweet scent. So there is lots to choose from if you want to add shape and form to your winter garden. True they are less showy in summer but no one can perform all year round, not even you dear readers.

That’s why we need other plants such as evergreen perennials and grasses. A favourite of mine is the genus Heuchera. There are so many varieties it is impossible to mention them all but my particular favourites (and you will see them dotted around Helmsley Walled Garden when you visit) are ‘Obsidian’ almost black leaves, makes a great foil for ‘Lime Marmalade’ which is as bright an almost acid green as you can get. Dark purple would be ‘Palace Purple’ or for a gorgeous raspberry darkening to rose purple go for ‘Berry Smoothie’. They keep their colour year round and make great ground cover if planted in drifts of three or five plants.

I must say a word for grasses here. I think they can be overlooked or if you are a certain age (like me) then you will remember when grass meant Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana) in the middle of the lawn. Now there is nothing wrong with Pampas but there are so many different grasses that can give you colour, height, movement whatever you need.

When I was at Kew, I worked for a while in the Grass Garden surrounded by a wealth of choice. From the beautiful Miscanthus sinensis with its creamy white plumes growing to 1.5m fading to silver in winter to Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Forester’ whose green stems fade to buff. Then there are the smaller grasses such as Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’, Japanese Blood Grass which is as its name suggests is a deep red. Only 50cm in height it needs to be at the front of the border but like all of these grasses lasts the  year round.

Yet again I haven’t even scratched the surface of what will make our garden glow in winter but I will cease and desist until next winter. Gardens are for all year not just for summer.


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