Create a winter garden wonderland

Ten tips to bring your garden to life this season

Grasses, perovskia and veronicastrum sparkle in frost

by Karen Murphy |

Some people like to pack up their plots for most of autumn and winter, preferring to tidy up and wait for warmer days before giving their garden a bright makeover.

But if you think about it, that’s four or five long months before you can enjoy your garden again – far too long for us keen gardeners!

Winter gardens can be really rewarding, cosy spaces with lots of bright colours and interest, so here are some key pointers to help your plot prosper now.

1. Add bold berries

There are plenty of plants with a bounty of berries in autumn, and then there are the more useful shrubs and trees that hold onto their fruit all through winter, as if they know their colour is most welcome for much longer into the year.

There are small potted shrubs for the doorstep at garden centres such as gaultheria and skimmia, giving a dash of immediate dazzle, but look a little deeper for some more permanent berrying beauties in a range of colours.

Good solid choices are holly, cotoneaster or fiery orange, yellow and red pyracantha, or go a step further for something special.

Try American native Ilex verticillata, a deciduous holly with eye-catching crowds of red berries crammed along each naked stem. Look into buying both male and female plants to be sure of berries. Neon-purple callicarpa defies the season, while selected crab apples – while not strictly berries – keep their fruits all through winter, like the variety ‘Adirondack’.

2. Blue is the colour

Have you noticed how spring and summer are full to the brim with blue plants, signifying freshness and vibrancy?

You can defy the winter season and bring a little of this ‘spring’ colour to your garden now, of course, with the addition of bright blue fescues and a couple of blue feature conifers such as juniper ‘Blue Arrow’ and Juniperus squamata.

The sun shining on icy blue stems is a sight to behold. Liberally dot about some early iris and early crocus to see your blue display transfer into late winter.

3. Bright patio displays

Your easiest and arguably most enjoyable winter job is to freshen up your pots with a cacophony of colour now – grab some bargains at your local garden centre in the bedding and pot department and create some stunning displays.

Really anything goes – don’t worry too much about lots of room for shrub roots, you can always take them out of the pot in spring and plant them properly elsewhere.

Be sure to add a smattering of crocus, aconite and early iris into the mix for good measure.

4. Try some topiary

You can get some terrific topiary structures already made for you at this time of year, or you can start your own shape now.

Just buy your plants and wire shapes and leave clipping till spring.

Topiary comes alive in winter, defining borders and paths with quirky balls and spirals when a lot of other things have flopped and disappeared.

Box is a clippable classic, while yew has perhaps the most attractive foliage.

5. Make sense with scents

What could entice you out in the garden for a wander more than a range of sweet and spicy scents emanating from beautiful early flowers?

Gather a collection of strategically placed shrubs now and get planting – if they don’t flower this year, preparing in advance and getting them settled in now will see them fragrantly flowering either next winter or the one after.

It’ll be worth the wait! Try essential sarcococca, as well as fresh and zesty Hamamelis mollis. In late winter chimonanthus has super sweet yellow flowers on bare stems, whose waxy appearance always makes you want to touch them.

Viburnum ‘Dawn’ is a long flowerer, generously emitting a delicious scent sometimes for six months from October.

6. Daub with decoration

Drapes of wintry lights woven through trees and hedging make a huge difference to your winter garden, but you can keep it simple instead of spending ages wiring strings through branches, and dreading taking them down again in a couple of months.

Simply wind strings at low level around the bottom of tree trunks, through empty pergolas, or draped over box balls. That way the light strings can be easily removed.

You could always keep them up, though, and enjoy the light display all through the year!

7. Add a fire pit

If you don’t like getting out in the garden in the freezing cold to admire all the new additions to pep up your winter garden, let the warmth come to you!

Chimeneas are very reasonable from garden centres, lovely and warm and can be used on nippy summer nights too, of course.

But for big parties outside when all your family can sit on crisp day or night with marshmallows and sing carols, try a fire pit surrounded by seating.

There’s nothing cosier than a winter campfire – you’ll now be able to look on at your winter stems, scented flowers, decorations and patio displays from the comfort of the fireside!

8. Seed heads and grasses

Much of the best winter interest started out with its heyday in summer.

Billows of perennials have their first time in the sun flowering and bulking up our summer borders.

But some of the sturdier ones have a second, often more impressive, spell in the limelight from late autumn onwards.

Take phlomis and honesty, for example, whose rounded seed head punctuation dots turn heads more in winter than in summer.

Also go for miscanthus, molinia and calamagrostis grasses as well as sedums and sea hollies for good measure.

9. Striking stems

After leaf fall, the garden needn’t be bare and devoid of colour.

It can be a melancholy time once all that vivid leaf colour goes away, particularly this year, when the brightness of our autumn foliage was something special.

Many tree stems, often hidden by spring and summer leaves, get to show off their merits now. Try a vivid collection of lime green cornus ‘Flaviramea’, hot orange ‘Midwinter Fire’ and cherry red ‘Sibirica’.

Snakebark and paperbark maples also make larger trees with beautiful tactile trunks.

10. Add plants that shine in frost

Harness those twinkling winter frosts and use them to your advantage.

Get in some evergreens that look simply gorgeous with ice-lined fronds and stems, such as ophiopogon, carex, ferns and semi-evergreen hakonechloa.

Hoar frosts, created on clear, still days, are a wonder of nature, allowing us to admire leaf form and grass stems close up, best shown off on grasses and fronded plants.

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