What to plant in a winter garden

What to plant in a winter garden

Here’s what to plant in a winter garden to keep your outdoor spaces looking good all year round.

Just because it’s cold outside, doesn’t mean your garden can’t still be an exciting place to be. True, you might not want to sit outside to read your book (unless you have a sheltered arbour or summer house). But you may well need to take the dogs out for a wee, fetch something from the shed, put the bins out or replenish the bird table, so you may as well enjoy the journey. Plus, of course, your wellbeing will benefit from an occasional turn around the garden.

A well designed garden will have paths and stepping stones that feel safe and mean that you needn’t walk on the lawn when it’s frozen. But what can you plant in your winter garden to give you the best possible experience?

Plants for form and structure

Winter in the UK usually sees all but the hardiest of plants shrinking back into the soil to wait for warmer weather. But your herbaceous perennials, and some of the annuals too, will often leave their shadows behind in the form of seedheads, spent stems and dried foliage.  Try not to be too tidy – these can be as beautiful as the summer version of the plants….especially on a bright frosty morning.

Bring some sense of order to spent flowers by including some plants with strong shapes.  Smartly clipped hedges, topiary, rich green conifers and exotic looking beauties such as Fatsia japonica.

Choose trees and shrubs with strong shapes and use them as focal points.  Perhaps even add some lighting to show them off.

garden in winter

Trees and shrubs with strong shapes more than make up for the lack of flowers in this winter garden.
Imagine how fascinating the shadows will be at different times of the day.

Winter colour

It’s harder to achieve the same cacophony of colour in a winter garden as you’ll find in a spring, summer or autumn plot, but it’s by no means impossible.

Look for woody plants with coloured bark – such as the silver birch. Or why not try Salix irrorata  – a willow with blue-white stems and pretty catkins that appear early in the year.

A favourite shrub for winter colour is the beautiful Cornus ‘midwinter fire’. Irridescent red-orange stems appear to light up the garden on the gloomiest of afternoons.

Another fabulous flowering tree/shrub for winter time is the witch hazel.  Delicately scented flowers appear after Christmas and don’t seem to mind the frost at all.

Roses may not actually be at their most floriferous during the winter months, but choose your species carefully and you could be treated to a riotous display of brightly coloured rose hips.

Don’t forget pots and containers. Stuff them full with cost effective winter pansies and variegated ivy for a cheap and cheerful display.

bright yellow flowers of witch hazel on leafless stem

Hamamelis intermedia ‘Ripe Corn’ . Just one of the many varieties of witch hazel to choose from.
All are equally beautiful and bring a welcome splash of colour to the winter garden

Sound and movement

The winter garden should offer an incredible sensory experience.  Imagine tall plants bending and  swaying in the wind. 

Prairie type plantings will ripple as the breeze passes over them and if you are brave enough to plant bamboos (please keep their roots encased in containers) you’ll be rewarded by a wonderful soundscape if you step outside on a blustery day.

I love to see grasses such as Panicum virgatum and Miscanthus sinensis ‘morning light’ planted in conjunction with blowsy sedums, teasels, rudbeckia and other spectacular seed heads. Not only do you have the joy of watching the plants dance in the wind – you’ll have plenty of feathered visitors popping by to scoff the seeds.

ornamental grasses and verbena bonariensis in a winter garden near Pelton Essex

Part of a planting plan designed by Tapestry Design Studios. This photograph was taken in late September.
You can see how the grasses, the evergreen shrub and the seedheads of Verbena bonariensis are going to look amazing right through winter and into spring.

Winter fragrance

There’s a surprising array of plants that offer winter fragrance in the garden.  One of the sweetest smelling flowering shrubs that comes to mind is the sweet box. Also known as Sarcococca confusa, sweet box is an innocuous looking shrub with barely noticeable white blooms – but oh my goodness – that heavenly aroma will have me taking in big gulps of fresh air every time I pass by the plant.

Skimmia x confusa “Kew Green” is an award winning shrub with showy, cone shaped clusters of cream coloured blooms from late winter onwards.  Bees adore it and on days when it’s warm enough for them to fly you’ll find them greedily feasting on the flowers. Happy in shade, this is a very easy plant to grow.

At ground level, you’ll do well to find a better snowdrop than Galanthus ‘Magnet’. Good strong plants with a sweet and gentle fragrance.  Just right for fighting off the winter blues.

But here’s a surprising plant. Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’.  It’s pretty unremarkable for most of the year but this bush honeysuckle – yes – honeysuckle! has prettily fragranced flows from early December through to April.  They’re marvellous when picked and brought into the house as part of a posy.

Cut flowers for winter arrangements

Yes, you can be picking flowers from your garden all year round. You just need to know what to plant.

Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ is a good choice.  Dramatic bright yellow flower spikes sit atop shiny green foliage in the depths of winter.  They look great in a vase, but even better outside where they are a first class food source for hungry bees.

manhonia flowers in a winter garden

Mahonia flowers don’t seem to mind the cold weather

The humble hellebore offers both foliage and flowers for your winter posies.  There are lots of different varieties to choose from in colours from the deepest purple to the palest blush pink.

Lunaria rediviva – the perennial honesty makes an interesting cut “flower”.  Although the flowers will have finished by the end of summer, the seedheads are glorious. They look just like shiny silver pennies and are terrific teamed with dried flowers or evergreen foliage.

Plants for wildlife

You are not the only one who wants to be able to enjoy your garden in winter time. Many of our wild creatures are also appreciative of a careful planting plan.  Think about providing shelter, a source of food, and fresh water.  Plants with berries, ground cover plants, seed heads and hedges are all welcomed by birds, insects and small furries who live outdoors all year round.

Need help devising a winter planting plan for your plot?

The Tapestry Design Studios team of garden designers and horticulturists are on hand to guide you.  Tell us about your garden and how you would like to use it in winter time and for a moderate fee, we’ll suggest which plants to use and how to position them for best effect.

Learn more about our ‘planting to impress’ garden design packages

Or contact us for more information

Visit Hedging Plants Direct for some

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