A winter winner for lovely flowers and foliage at this time of year
The Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, is one of those iconic plants of winter that always lifts the spirits, while marvelling at how something so beautiful and elegant can withstand the rigours of seasonal weather.
An evergreen perennial with leathery, multi-fingered leaves, the Christmas rose is found growing wild in Switzerland’s mountains, southern Germany and Austria through to northern Italy. Here, the flower colour is more variable, with purple and pink forms also known.
Preferring moist, semi-shaded conditions and alkaline soils, the Christmas rose loathes dry shade and will struggle beneath trees in dry, rooty soil.
With the advent of bringing a wider diversity of winter flowers for gardeners, it has been crossed with other species to create hybrids that are often intermediate in character and flower earlier than they would do normally, but bring pinkish, or yellowish tones and the stronger habit of the other parent species. H. nigercors is a cross with H. argutifolius (formerly H. corsicus) and H. ballardiae a marriage between H. niger and H. lividus.
Hellebore hybridists such as Hugh Nunn and his daughter Penny Dawson (www.twelvenunns.co.uk; tel: 01778590455) have created the Harvington double form, also known as ‘Harvington Petticoat’.
In recent years, Josef Heuger from Germany, has introduced the Helleborus Gold Collection, or HGC for short, with much improved flowers, earlier flowering and stronger habits. Besides being planted in borders, they can also be grown in pots.
Plant these star performers for autumnal oomph!
Iris that produce a second flush of autumnal flowers may sound like something far-fetched, but there are some varieties, particularly of bearded iris, that possess this very welcome trait.
Although no different in structure or stature to normal varieties, in autumn they produce stems from new growths that burst dramatically into bloom – just as much else in the garden is starting to wane. For maximum effect, mix them with other late-flowering plants, such as chrysanthemums, salvias or dahlias, or cut them for stunning indoor table displays.
Rebloomers, or remontant iris as they are technically known, don’t always flower reliably every year, since their ability to do this is governed by the particular variety, the weather and how healthy they are.
The new growth does not need normal winter chilling to flower, but is stimulated to do so in the cooler temperatures and moist days of autumn, and this year seems to have been good for most remontant bloomers.
With all the extra effort required, they’ll need feeding after flowering, both in spring and autumn, to build up their energy to bloom again. Use a high-potash fertiliser and work it into the soil around the exposed rhizomes.
The rhizomes should be lifted, divided and young rhizomes replanted every three to four years in July, but it may take a few months for them to re-establish and rebloom again.
Use these shrubs for their welcome winter flowers, fruit and foliage
Viburnums are one of the workhorse shrubs of the garden and while most flower from late spring into early summer, there are some that really make an impact in winter. Besides flowers, viburnums also contribute with colourful and long-lasting fruit and decorative foliage, with evergreen species such as Viburnum tinus making an important visual contribution in winter, while also making a useful hedge.
Although mostly white, or pale pink, the individual small flowers of viburnum are massed into clusters or globular heads with many, particularly those that are winter flowering, also possessing a sweet or musky scent. After the flowers many produce attractive berries in shades of red, yellow and black to metallic blue. Starting in autumn, some like the guelder rose, V. opulus, continue to shine into winter.
Viburnums are adaptable when it comes to the soil they are placed in, as long as they’re not waterlogged or excessively dry. They will tolerate sun through to full shade, although their flowering performance will be hampered if conditions are continually gloomy.
V. opulus and V. tinus are prone to attacks by the creamy, black-spotted larvae and adults of viburnum beetle, which can skeletonise foliage. Use organic insecticides containing pyrethrins and fatty acids when grubs are seen in spring, but stop spraying when plants are flowering to protect pollinators.
These plants will provide cheer throughout autumn and winter
Camellias are among the most aristocratic evergreen shrubs, with lustrous leaves and bold, wax-textured flowers in an astonishing range of shapes and forms. While most flower from January through to spring, there are species, hybrids and varieties that lighten shortening days with blossoms through autumn into Christmas.
Many of these are C. sasanqua, from China and Japan, while others come from the fragrant Chinese tea oil C. oleifera or the hybrids C. hiemalis and C. vernalis.
While many are hardy, others, such as varieties of C. oleifera, may need more winter warmth and shelter, particularly in colder gardens. They’re all easily grown in pots of ericaceous compost, which can be brought into a glasshouse or conservatory over the coldest months or, if durable, left outside on the patio all year. Pot cultivation not only provides winter protection, it also helps restrict size and spread, further reduced via light pruning.
Camellias need acid to neutral, moist, but well-drained soil. If they become chlorotic, or yellow-leaved, or are in thin, chalky soils of PH7 and above, growing in pots is best. While they’ll withstand winter sun they need to be kept out of strong sunlight in summer. They also need to be kept moist, particularly in summer when flower buds are being set. Use rainwater wherever possible and feed with ericaceous liquid feed in spring. If plants start to outgrow their space lightly trim back errant shoots immediately after they finish flowering.
This month is your last chance to plant an exotic spring display
Tulips are among the most iconic spring blossoms, with colours and shapes that far out-dazzle many other seasonal bulbs. They also have a long season from early April through into May but, of the 15 different forms of tulips, the late varieties are particularly useful in providing a crucial floral bridge of colour as warming weather accelerates the garden towards summer.
It’s also a season that can be difficult, as it’s often windy and wet, but late varieties generally have larger blossoms and stout stems that enable them to resist inclement weather. There are also many early-flowering perennials and shrubs to combine their exotic presence with. Their longer stems mean they can be planted among emerging perennials, such as lupins, to over-top them, or among roses that are bursting into leaf.
Although there’s a particular class of tulip called Single Late, which is derived from the oval Darwin and cottage garden types, there are also late-flowering varieties of other classes, such as fringed, lily-flowered and parrot, which collectively compose late forms, so it’s down to you to select the types you need from plant catalogues. Plant bulbs 2-3 times deeper than their height and twice their width apart in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. These types of tulip bulbs are usually discarded after flowering, as they don’t persist year to year, but you can lift the bulbs after the foliage has died back, dry them off and replant the following autumn.
These oriental favourites are just oozing with autumnal appeal
Appreciated in Britain for around 200 years, the deciduous Japanese maple Acer palmatum, in its best forms really comes into its own with spectacular autumn tints and colourful winter shoots. Relatively slow growing, shade tolerant with more than 1,000 varieties, this shrub or small tree can be grown in pots or in borders no matter what size of garden you have. The thin, elegant leaves have an incredible range of shape and form, from highly dissected to bold, simple outlines, further expanded through a range of tints and variegations that restrict vigour, further helping keep these decorative varieties small and compact. Equally fascinating, growth habits can be light and airy, dome-shaped, tiered to stiff and architectural.
Native to damp, shady forests of Japan, China and Korea, the tree is highly variable, and has been selected by Japanese gardeners for hundreds of years. It’s an important component of Japanese gardens, often shaped and clipped as an accent tree around a house. Shallow-rooted and easily trained, it became an important subject for traditional bonsai and other creative miniaturising techniques. Japanese maples were first introduced into the UK in 1820, when the country first opened to Western trade and quickly entranced gardeners in Europe, which they still do today. They prefer moist, organic, woodland soil in semi-shade, the foliage is easily crisped if allowed to dry out in full sun. In pots its best to use a general-purpose compost, with added John Innes, rather than heavy, loam-based types. Site pots in a shady spot and keep them regularly watered.
They’re not just for Hallowe’en and come in all shapes and sizes!
Pumpkins probably provide the most unusual late splashes of colour in the vegetable garden. Amid the decaying foliage can be found an astonishing array of outlandish fruits that sit on the soil like an elephant’s discarded gem stones. Besides enthralling adults, they’re also a delight for children and an effective way to get them growing plants, if only for the thrill of creating their own Hallowe’en lanterns. Many make good eating too, although we’re still getting to grips with cooking pumpkins in the UK.
Pumpkins have no specific botanical status and are just a type of winter squash, largely derived from Cucurbita pepo, although some of the larger types come from C. maxima. They originate from North America and are widely grown commercially for food as well as decoration, with some types being useful for both. It’s amazing that just one or two species can generate such an incredible range of fruit, of different sizes, shapes and textures from around the world. Pumpkins grow on vigorous spreading or clambering tender annual vines, which can make 1.8m (6ft) or more, taking up quite a bit of space, so are best grown on a bit of vacant land or on an allotment, rather than the treasured vegetable plot. Seeds are usually planted singly in pots under glass or on a windowsill in May, then grown on and hardened off for planting out in rich garden soil in June after the last frosts. Keep your plant watered and fed throughout the summer and help pollination by transferring pollen from bloom to bloom with a paintbrush. If you want to grow a giant just keep one or two fruit and cut back stems, removing other fruit once your chosen fruit starts swelling.
These dainty species are far more hardy than their houseplant cousins
Dainty, nodding flowers of wild cyclamen are a welcome sight in gardens, coming as they do from late summer and late winter into spring. Of the hardy species and forms, they’re one of those plants that once established you can almost forget. You’re only reminded of their presence when they awake from dormancy to enchant you with delicate flowers, patterned and shapely foliage and, in some species and forms, a delicious, sweet scent.
Cyclamen are low-growing, deciduous to semi-evergreen, tuberous plants found throughout the Mediterranean, to southern Europe, North Africa, east into Syria, Lebanon and Iran. They variously inhabit short grassland, rocky outcrops to open woodland glades, making many species usefully shade tolerant. Some, such as C. hederifolium and C. coum, are able to thrive among tree roots, a notoriously difficult situation for gardeners to deal with. With species flowering at different times of the year, particularly late summer into autumn and mid-winter into spring, you can have a succession of blooms from cerise, through to pale pink and white.
They’re highly variable from seed, and nurserymen have selected forms with interesting leaf patterns or flower colours. Pot-grown plants can be planted any time, while dry corms will be seasonally available. Corms don’t need burying, but planted so they’re level with or just proud of the soil. If growing in pots, use a mix of multi-purpose and John Innes, with additional sharp grit for drainage.
Plant bulbs in the coming weeks and you’ll have Christmas flowers
The huge, fleshy-rooted bulbs of hippeastrum are available in garden centres right now. These are one of the indoor pleasures of deep winter, producing trumpet flowers on stout stalks. Being almost guaranteed to flower, they make excellent gifts.
Hippeastrum, often erroneously known as amaryllis, come from South America. The first to be hybridised were H. reginae and H. vittatum by a Lancashire watchmaker in 1799, who gave plants to Liverpool’s Botanic Garden. More hybrids followed as more species were introduced. Breeding then moved to the Netherlands and the USA in the late 19th and 20th centuries, then to South Africa and latterly to Japan, India, Brazil and Australia.
The traditional, large-flowered types come in a range of colours, from vermillion-red, through shades of pink, orange and salmon tones to pure white, streaked or striped. Double-petalled forms have been bred with similar patterning. Other colours, such as pale yellow and lime have started to appear, largely through the use of species such as the butterfly hippeastrum H. papilio and narrow petalled H. cybister. Unfortunately very few hybrids are scented.
Plant bulbs six to eight weeks from the date you want them to flower, which means November if you want them in bloom for Christmas. Plant in a pot 5-7½cm (2-3in) wider than the bulb, leaving two thirds of the bulb exposed. Use a general-purpose compost or John Innes No 2, firm and water in. The bulb will produce a flower stem first, followed by strap-shaped leaves. After flowering, remove the spent stem. Keep the bulb moist and fed until late summer, then keep cool 15-18C (60-65F), allow the leaves to dry, then repot and start the cycle again.
This garden stalwart is pleasing to the eye and great for wildlife
Although perhaps considered a little bit overused, cotoneaster remains an indispensable garden plant, particularly at this time of year when they produce their characteristic red fruits, either studding the stems or hanging in copious clusters among the leaves.
Their impact is long lasting, whether the species are evergreen or deciduous. There are few woody plants with such a range of shape and form from the stature of small trees, especially if the lower branches are removed, to low creeping mats or tight globes suitable for use in gravel or rock gardens, such as ‘Little Gem’. Some species, such as C. salicifolius, gently weep like a willow, others mould themselves against the surfaces along which they grow. Some have stiff branching forms that provide architectural interest. Shoots of particular varieties such as C. suecicus ‘Juliette’ are grafted on stout cotoneaster stems to produce tree-like, weeping or topiary forms.
Cotoneaster is a member of the rose family, although it’s difficult to appreciate this with small-flowered species. The white or pink and white flowers which appear in early summer produce copious amounts of nectar and are a magnet for pollinators, which soon transfer pollen from plant to plant. They’re useful food plants for various types of moth and the berries are also winter fare for many birds, such as blackbirds, thrushes and waxwings.
Cotoneaster is an easy plant growing in sun or semi-shade in any moist, well-drained soil as long as it doesn’t become constantly wet, especially in winter. It can also be cut back quite severely in spring if it outgrows its space and can easily be trained and shaped so it can meld into any garden style.
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