How your garden can still look good in winter

PUBLISHED: 12:08 03 January 2017 | UPDATED: 12:08 03 January 2017

Make the most of mahonia by cutting out weaker stems

Photo: Paul van de Velde,

Make the most of mahonia by cutting out weaker stems Photo: Paul van de Velde,


The bare-faced truth is that the season can leave our favourite spots looking a little sparse, but they can rival summer’s glory, says Naomi Slade

Winter really shows what a garden is made of. When the leaves fall, views lengthen and plants lose their fullness – and their ability to hide a multitude of sins. But there are certain things that will help make sure that a plot will perform whatever the season, perhaps even rivalling its summer glories.

Repeating forms and ideas give a garden coherence, making the most of those extended winter vistas. Think clipped balls of box or blocks of yew, splashes of colour bouncing your eye into the distance and incorporate vertical lines, like white birch stems or bright bamboo. Notably, bamboo becomes even better if you cut off the lower leaves and thin the plant to give it some space. Remembering to add height in the form of trees and tall shrubs, pergolas and other structures, will help the garden to fill its space, reducing the potential to become flat and dull in winter.

The absence of leaves also reveals colours that may be consigned to the background earlier in the year. The hot oranges and reds of Cornus alba or the gloriously glossy, peeling bark of Prunus serrula and Prunus rufa, for example, while some maples have interesting bark too. Texture adds another dimension, so aim for plants that contrast well with their surroundings; let pheasant’s tail grass swish, and allow Miscanthus to fly its cottony flags until late winter or spring.

Evergreen trees, shrubs and perennials, meanwhile, become more prominent. Bergenias and evergreen ferns come to the fore, while gold, purple or glaucous blue (think purple or variegated Pittosporum, Picea glauca or Pinus mugo ‘Winter Gold’) can be a pleasant change from the darker greens of holly and ivy, particularly in a sunny spot.

At ground level, lashings of bulbs brighten things up from January onwards and winter flowering shrubs like daphnes, Chimonanthus praecox, Viburnum bodnantense and witch hazels add scent to an increasingly heady mixture. Mahonia can seem a bit dated and obvious, but cutting out the weaker stems and lower leaves lightens the look of the thing, giving it a new, sculptural quality and freeing up the surrounding area for underplanting.

But winter is not all bad, all grey or all cold. It is a time of new beginnings, that point where the buds start imperceptibly swelling and the spring flowers prepare to burst through in all their glory. And with a little structure here, a little clever planting there and lots of repeated ideas all over, the garden tells a story and draws you in, while a low sun and clear blue sky can make the colours sing.

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