The Garden in Winter

Sarcococca confusa / Sweet box Hamamellis 'Pallida' / Witch hazel

It's not all doom and gloom in these dark days of winter. In the garden there are some subtle delights that bring cheer on even the greyest of days. In a summer garden these plants would be out-shone by bigger and brighter delights. Yet in winter they have the lack of background distraction to draw our full attention. Many winter-blooming plants are highly fragrant and their sweet smell can be surprisingly powerful given the small size of the blooms.

The sweet fragrance of Sarcococca confusa (known as Sweet box or Christmas box) is powerful enough to waft around the garden, though like most fragrant plants it should be located somewhere where it will be noticed: no point in having a wonderfully fragrant plant at the far end of the garden which nobody ever gets to except in summer. As it is a plant that prefers a shady spot it is ideal around the base of the house or in the part of the garden that gets least sunlight. It's perfect near a path - or even as an edging plant to a path - or interspersed with shrubs, ferns or bulbs. Another benefit of this plant is that is makes an excellent cut flower: the glossy leaves and fragrant flower makes it an excellent choice for a winter flower arrangement.

Omphalodes verna Helleborus niger

Another subtle winter delight is the Witch hazel (Hamamellis x intermedia). There are several varieties, with flowers varying from pale yellow to dark yellow to burnt orange to red. The spidery flowers have a delicate fragrance and appear on bare twigs, giving the plant a delightfully wispy character. Perfect for a lightly shaded part of the garden, the witch hazel grows to be a modestly sized shrub (approximately 3 x 3 metres) in soil that is neutral to acid. It has the benefit of fabulous autumn colour and, when in summer leaf, perfectly attractive foliage.  It is an excellent plant for a container: we have one by the front door which is underplanted with ferns and ivy, making a set-piece which has something going on for most months of the year.

When choosing plants for the garden it's always worth thinking about all the different levels: there should be something happening on or near the ground (perennials, ferns, grasses, bulbs etc); in the middle area (shrubs, tall perennials and grasses); and, if possible, up above (trees and climbers). Two pretty plants which are looking great right now at the start of January are Omphalodes verna (creeping forget-me-not) and Helleborus niger (Christmas rose). Both of these plants are close to the ground. The clear blue flowers of the Omphalodes look like they belong to a couple of months later into the year. It's a perfect plant for going under larger trees or shrubs and is most content in moist soil. More well-known is the Hellebore / Christmas rose. The pretty white or green flowers stand up tall amongst or above the glossy green leaves of the plant and, when established, these plants can survive and spread for many years. Given the lack of light in the winter, many of the best winter-blooming plants like to take advantage of the conditions provided by deciduous trees and shrubs above: they like humus- rich soil, which they get from fallen leaves, but they also like the light they get when the plants above are without leaves. Many of the plants disappear entirely half way through the year when available light and moisture is taken up by the bigger plants above them.

 Buxus sempervirens (Box) domes, Dublin

It's also worth thinking about structure in the garden during the winter. When so many plants have retreated into the ground or into themselves, the garden can look very empty, even with a few flowering gems such as those outlined above. Structural plants are the ones that give the garden a shape, an all-year-round back-bone upon which some of the more ephemeral plants can be grouped. Without these structural plants - normally evergreen plants such as the Box plants (Buxus sempervirens) shown above -  a garden can look pretty bleak for much of the year. These structural plants can define paths or simply fill an otherwise empty space. When there is more going on later in the year the blend into the background somewhat.

Other excellent 'structural' plants for adding winter interest include Bay (Laurus nobilis), Yew (Taxus baccata), and Portugal laurel (Prunus lusitanica). These are normally clipped into interesting shapes to give a degree of formality.