10 creative ways to improve your winter garden
If you put some effort into planting a winter garden, it can really lift your spirits when you look outside.
It’s too easy to let a garden become a bit of a dumping ground between November and February.
But go outside one morning early. Look at how light catches the bark of a silver birch, or the frost outlines dying seedheads. It will show you how winter gardens can be as beautiful as a summer garden – but in a different way.
Gardens used to be able to snooze through winter, but today’s glass kitchen extensions, massive glass sliding doors and huge picture windows mean a middle-sized garden is on show all year round.
So I went to RHS Hyde Hall to talk to garden manager, Andrew Hellman, about the new winter garden they’re creating.
What a winter garden really means
When I visited RHS Hyde Hall, I wasn’t entirely sure what a ‘winter garden’ was. I imagined something with lots of evergreen trees and topiary, which would make crisp frosted outlines on freezing winter mornings.
To my surprise, there wasn’t an evergreen tree or a topiarised shrub in sight.
‘A winter garden is all about the light,’ explained Andrew. He advises you to look out of your window (or your glass bi-fold doors). Observe where the sunlight falls over the day, and plan appropriately.
‘There’s a wonderful slanting sunlight in the winter,’ he says. ‘Some plants, such as grasses, look wonderful when they’re backlit. Others, such as cornus, look best when the sun is shining on them.’
Cornus look best when the sun shines on them, but grasses sing with the light behind them.
As today’s ‘winter gardens’ are close to the house, where they can be seen, it’s essential to choose plants which look good in more than one season.
Andrew suggests choosing shrubs with good winter stem colour, such as cornus. Or trees which reveal beautiful bark when they drop their leaves.
Next, think about how your herbaceous plants will hold their shape even when their colour is gone. This includes grasses and plants such as salvias, echinacea, sedum, phlomis and thalictrum.
Finally, include a few shrubs with winter interest or scent, such as daphne or callicarpa.
Here are Andrew’s top tips for a winter garden.
1) Trees for a winter garden
Fruit trees are good for smaller gardens because they don’t grow too big. Choose trees with spring blossom and autumn colour or ones that hang onto fruits and berries for a long time.
At RHS Hyde Hall, they choose crab apples that hold their fruit, although Andrew admits that he forgot about this factor in his own garden. ‘I planted a crab apple, waited a few years for it to fruit, and then realised it wasn’t good at holding onto it.’ It’s nice to know that even the experts can get it wrong.
So he suggests malus ‘Adirondack’ or the slightly larger malus ‘Gorgeous’, which was looking particularly lovely during my visit to Hyde Hall. Both have masses of white flowers in spring, and long-lasting colourful fruit.
There is more expert advice on choosing the best tree for a smaller garden here.
2) Trees with beautiful bark
Trees don’t have to keep their leaves to be beautiful. Andrew is planting a range of trees for their bark in the Hyde Hall winter garden. These include the ghostly grey Gingko biloba (see below) and a golden-barked Prunus Maackii ‘Amber Beauty’ (see the video below for a view of its golden polished trunk).
3) Top shrubs for a winter garden
For scent, Andrew suggests that you tuck a sarcococca confusa or Christmas box in somewhere. It’s an evergreen, and has the most glorious white flowers and winter scent.
Cornus, of course, reigns supreme when it comes to winter stem colour. Andrew advises you to place it where the sun will fall on the stems – which will make their colour richer. His recommended favourite is Anny’s Winter Orange.
Another good winter shrub is hamamelis, or witch hazel. It comes in glorious shades of yellow, orange and pink.
Andrew also recommends callicarpa ‘Profusion’ as another good shrub for the middle-sized winter garden. It has pale lilac flowers in early summer and incredible purple berries in autumn and winter. ‘They look as if someone had glued cake decorations onto the plant’, says Andrew. Its bronze spring foliage is sought-after for flower arrangements.
Callicarpas have been difficult to grow in the past, because they’ve needed several plants grown together in order to fruit. However, ‘Profusion’ has an RHS Order of Merit and can be grown on its own.
4) Movement and drama replace colour in a winter garden
Grasses give a winter garden structure and movement. Andrew recommends Panicum ‘North Wind’ – it’s a large grass but is very columnar, so it doesn’t take up too much space. It’s very structural and has good autumn colour that fades to brown. It’ll go on looking good until you decide to clip it down in spring.’
5) Plant a winter garden for pollinating insects
Contrast shapes by placing verticals like grasses with low, spreading rounded flower heads. Sedum makes a great contrast to the vertical grasses and spires. Sedum ‘Matrona’ is one of the latest-flowering plants – ‘on a fine day, it’s swarming with pollinating insects,’ says Andrew.
It’s also a ‘a winner for a long season of colour. It starts as a rich red and fades to a dark brown, while remaining very structural. ‘
6) Plant for summer colour and winter structure
Some plants hold their shape and flower or seed heads over the winter. They add good summer colour, then fade to brown. These include symphotricum (formerly aster), phlomis russeliana and echinacea. Andrew recommends Echinacea ‘Pallida’ (pale purple coneflower) as a more unusual version, which looks delicate but is actually tougher than some other cultivars.
I didn’t see a single hydrangea at Hyde Hall, but I felt they deserve a mention in any post on winter gardens. Personally I love hydrangeas most in winter, especially when their dried flowers heads are iced with snow. I also think hydrangeas work particularly well in pots or against walls, so they suit more urban gardens than Hyde Hall.
For expert tips on choosing and planting hydrangeas, see Everything You Need to Know About Growing Hydrangeas.
7) Contrast plant shapes and sizes
When colour is subdued, then it’s particularly important to have a contrast of shape.
Mix tall spires with lower, more rounded plants. Grasses and sedum can be a good combination. Andrew recommends Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ for its lilac spires in summer and ghostly pale winter verticals.
8) Think about early spring colour
Just as the late flowering plants feed pollinating insects towards the end of the year, a good winter garden will be a source of nectar for early pollinators. Andrew recommends bergenia, which flowers in early March and keeps its shape throughout the year. ‘It’s good for filling gaps at the edge of a border or to line a path,’ he says.
9) For winter garden smartness – tidy the edges
We are all now advised to leave piles of fallen leaves or debris in beds, and not to be too tidy over winter. It helps wildlife and allows leaves to rot down, restoring their nutrients to the soil. It also saves time.
However, Andrew says that if you neaten the edges of borders, the garden will look much better.
If your weather is consistently above 5C, you’ll probably find that your lawn grass grows. Mow it a few times during winter on a fairly high blade, and neaten the edges. It’ll make the garden look so much better.
The Winter Garden at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex opened to the public in 2018, to ‘celebrate seasonal change’ and to show that your garden can look good throughout the year. They also have a Christmas programme.
10) Use pots for colour near the house
And there is more inspiration in 12 top plants for a brilliant winter container display.
Practical winter garden tips
Winter is a good time to take time off from the garden, but if you enjoy being outside, there are some good winter gardening tips here.
If you get a bout of warmer weather followed by a freeze, then plants can start to grow. Then the new growth gets hit by the freeze. If this happens, see this post on how to deal with winter damaged shrubs.
Pin to remember winter garden planting tips
And see here for a free weekly email with more tips and inspiration for your garden. You can also see some beautiful gardens on the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel, where you can see more of the gardens featured here.