Winter in the garden is at first glance not as exciting as the other seasons. Most herbaceous perennials are all tucked-in and hibernating for the season, flamboyant annuals are but a distant memory, and even the spectacular fall leaves have been added to the compost. A winter garden doesn’t scream “look at me” like the other seasons, it’s a bit more subtle. There are winter berries, like tiny natural bobbles, that have the bonus of being food for birds and other wildlife. There is also colourful foliage, bark and even an unexpected flower or colourful flower bud. So, don’t be mistaken into believing the winter garden is boring, there is much beauty to be had if you plant the right things you can truly enjoy beauty in the garden in all four seasons.
Here are a few of my favourite things to add to the garden to boost your winter joy and hopefully make you smile.
Skimmia japonica is one of the easiest and most rewarding shrubs to grow. An evergreen shrub, it has thick, glossy green leaves that are the perfect stage for a winter show of either long-lasting bright red berries, or masses of red-tinged flower buds (depending on the variety). The reason you can have a show of either berries or flower buds is because skimmia come in male and female plants (but there are a few self-fertile varieties). ‘Rubella’ is a compact male variety with stunning red sprays of flower buds that stay on the plant all winter and then open to star-shaped pink/white flowers in the spring. But male plants have no berries. So, if you want to have berries then get a female variety too. There are many to choose from, just make sure to read your labels and know what you are getting. And make sure there is a male nearby to act as a pollinator, to make sure you get lots of berries. Slow growing and relatively compact (90-120cm or 3-4’ tall) skimmia are great plants for both the garden and containers.
Gautheria procumbens, or wintergreen, is another plant that is perfect for both the garden and container growing. Petite, aka adorably little (10-15cm or 4-6” tall), this evergreen ground cover has bright green oval leaves that change to a mahogany/bronze colour in winter. White to soft-pink, waxy, pendulous, bell shaped flowers give rise to bright red bulbous berries. The result is a beautiful combination of green, red, mahogany and bronze all in one diminutive little plant. If you are ever wondering where the common name of wintergreen comes from, just crush the leaves and take a whiff. A great plant for the shade, tuck a few into a container or as a ground cover in the garden.
Hellebores are a must for every garden or container. Also called the Christmas or Lenten rose these herbaceous evergreen perennials have cup-shaped flowers that come in a dazzling array of colours ranging from green, chartreuse, yellow, pink, fuchsia, purple, almost black, creamy-white or combinations two or more. The flowers also come in classic single, or frilly doubles. Look for the Winter Jewels Series, as they are well named. Perfect for a shady spot, with their glossy compound leaves, the flower display can start in December and last all the way through to spring. Perfect to plant somewhere you can appreciate it up close, like a container or edge of the garden or path.
Red and Yellow twig dogwoods should be a staple in every garden. They are sculptural shrubs that look best with their leaves off. They have an upright, multi-stemmed habit, growing 1.8-2.7m (6-9’) tall. In spring they have flat-topped white clusters of flowers that are good for pollinators. These are followed in summer with white berries that are good for birds. But in winter the vibrant jolt of scarlet or yellow from their colourful stems is like an exclamation point on the landscape. Partial to full sun, plant them where they will get lots of moisture, don’t let them dry out. Also try to take advantage of contrasts in the landscape to highlight them, so plant them where there is either a dark or white (snowy) backdrop. In early spring remove about one quarter of the stems to rejuvenate and encourage colourful new growth. Some of my favourites including the bright yellow ‘Flaviramea,’ the scarlet of ‘Cardinal,’ and the combination of yellow, orange and crimson of ‘Midwinter Fire.’
Leucothoe ‘Rainbow’ the first time I saw this colourful evergreen I literally did a double-take and yelled, “what is that?!” Graceful arching evergreen stems with the most un-graceful common name of dog hobble or fetterbush. White, fragrant, bell-shaped flowers appear in the spring and last into the summer. But the leaves are the real show. The stems are a reddish colour with glossy, creamy-white, pink and green mottled leaves that turn purple/bronze in the fall. This is an elegant shrub that grows 1.5-1.8m (5-6’) tall.
Choisya Sundance, or Mexican orange blossom, doesn’t seem to be real when you first see it. A tropical looking evergreen with vibrant, chartreuse, golden yellow whorls of new leaves and the most amazing fragrant white flowers reminiscent of orange blossoms, that is fully hardy? A little design tip is that yellow coloured plants have an incredible ability to brighten up a dark spot, it’s almost like they bring their own glow. Grows up 1.2-2.4m (4-8’) tall in full sun to part shade, morning sun is best. Can be grown in a container and is one of the easiest plants to grow, awarded a Award of Garden Merit by the RHS is it well deserving of the honour.
Dwarf conifers are often overlooked in the landscape and to me this is a tragedy. Dwarf conifers come in a variety of textures and colours that can be the perfect backdrop or pop of colour that every garden needs. They are the backbone and workhorse of the garden, slow growing and dependable. Plant them in the garden or even in a container. Pine, fir, cedar, spruce, the list could go on and they all have their own look and shape. Take a walk through the nursery section of your local GardenWorks and find one that speaks to you.
It seems likely that we will all be spending a lot more time near home this winter, so why not try to make our outdoor spaces more beautiful? We should all try to get outside a bit more, just stay close to home and add some winter interest to your garden, patio or balcony.
Written by: Ingrid Hoff