10 creative ways to improve your winter garden

November 13th, 2016
Posted In: Garden trends & design

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.

RHS Hyde Hall

RHS Hyde Hall in Essex in November. It’s a garden with year round interest.

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.’

Summer plants that look good in a winter garden

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.

Malus 'Gorgeous' is a good choice for middlesized winter gardens

Malus ‘Gorgeous’ living up to its name at RHS Hyde Hall. Choose a crab apple that ‘holds onto’ its fruit for longer during the winter.

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).

Gingko biloba at Hyde Hall

The ghostly texture of gingko biloba without its leaves at Hyde Hall.

See this post to help you choose the right tree for your garden.

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 'Anny's Winter Orange'

Cornus sanguinea ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’ – recommend by Andrew for its intense winter colour.

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.

Callicarpa 'Profusion' for purple winter colour.

Callicarpa ‘Profusion’ has stunning winter berries. A striking addition to any winter garden.

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.

Callicarpa 'Profusion'

Callicarpa berries – it has pale lilac flowers in spring.

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.’

Panicum 'North Wind.'

Panicum ‘North Wind’ will turn a richer colour as the winter progresses.

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.

sedum 'Matrona'

Sedum ‘Matrona’ at Hyde Hall, halfway between its late summer ruby red and winter dark brown.

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.

Symphotricum - pretty in late summer and early autumn

This symphotricum has a pretty blue flower in late summer and autumn.

Symphotricum in a winter garden

The same symphyotricum, now adding texture and shape to a winter garden.

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.

Black-stemmed hydrangea in August

My friend Emma’s black-stemmed hydrangea in August.

Black-stemmed hydrangea in early January

The same hydrangea in early January. I love its sculptural shape and copper colour.

 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.

Perovskia Blue Spire in winter

Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ in winter.

Contrast shape and size in your winter garden

The tall, columnar Panicum ‘North Wind’ contrasting with low, large-leafed bergenia.

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.

Autumn border at RHS Hyde Hall

A border at Hyde Hall, with its neat edges. Verbena bonariensis is another good plant for summer flowers and winter structure.

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

Winter pots and window boxes give you flower colour near the house. Here is advice on how to plant a winter window box, plus some really useful tips on planting winter pots.

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.

Plants for winter gardens

15 comments on "10 creative ways to improve your winter garden"

  1. GT Thompson says:

    I can recommend Malus ‘Adirondack’, I believe it is also sometimes called Malus ‘Admiration’. I didn’t realise that not all malus hang onto their fruit, so I will bear that in mind if I need another one, they are beautiful trees for a smaller garden.

    1. Great suggestion, thank you

  2. Jeannie Meagher says:

    I enjoyed the article. Thank you Alexandra. I have 2 small beds in my front yard I am filling with winter annuals. I love the idea of a spot of color as the days grow shorter. We, in California, are in a severe drought and desperately need rain. The silver lining is the sun is shining and the weather is beautiful, autumnal and crisp.

    1. Oh, I do hope you get rain soon. We had such a drought this summer, it was really quite worrying. Now we are being sodden, but at least it is filling the water stores.

  3. Rosie Hanbury says:

    I planted Miscanthus Sinensis ‘Manuel Lepage’ at the bottom of my small town garden.line of sight from house is north east. They are in front of a very dark blue brick shed wall but lit by evening sun until September and now, their first full year, look fabulous in the winter afternoon sunlight (when its not tipping down!)

    1. Miscanthus is so beautiful, I am dithering over which ones to choose in the border I’m replanting at the moment. I will check out Manuel Lepage, thank you.

  4. Sam Green says:

    This is great! It goes perfectly with our new winter post – all about getting the most out of you and your garden this winter. Thanks for sharing this, we’ll definitely be back

  5. Ruth says:

    Wonderful article. Winter is often a time garden neglected, when in fact they can be at their most beautiful. Tips of frost or raindrops making Jewel like twinkles in weak winter sun, gives the garden a certain serenity. Thank you

    1. Thank you for commenting, winter gardens are an acquired taste, but I love them.

  6. Andy says:

    One of the finest winter borders in Kent is at Broadview Gardens at Hadlow College, go out the gate at the back of the garden centre, turn left and the cornus and salix bed is about 30 yards in front of you. Catch it when the sun is low in the sky and it’s tremendous.

    1. I will look out for it. Thank you for the recommendation.

  7. rusty duck says:

    I’ve been trying very hard to get a garden that looks good in winter. Some really good tips here. I love phlomis with grasses and I agree, hydrangeas can look brilliant!

    1. I wonder what sort of a winter we’ve got coming up?

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