Now is the time to experiment with colour, height and texture in the garden – and to use potted plants to maximum effect.
Sometimes the smallest, easiest and most affordable horticultural ideas deliver far more satisfaction than they promise, and this is certainly true of a beautifully planted pot or window box. Even if you only have a small garden – or no garden at all – as long as you have enough space to park a planter, trough or box, you can bring instant colour and vivacity to forlorn areas.
Go big and bold
If you have a patio, driveway or porch area that can take one or two large planters, create an eye-catching display using erica arborea, a winter heather that can grow up to two metres. It might reward you with scented white flowers in later winter, but even if it doesn’t, its gorgeous, golden foliage will make you smile throughout the year. It’s lovely on its own, or set against the deep pinks of erica carnea, another winter heather.
Follow the form
“Now is the time of year to appreciate the shape and form of evergreens – clipped or otherwise,” says Holly Farrell, garden designer, horticulturist and author of many garden books, including RHS Miniature Garden Grower. “Scented shrubs, such as Christmas or sweet box (sarcococca), are a gift to less-proficient gardeners because they’re so easy to grow.” Some varieties, such as sarcococca confusa, can reach a height of one metre, but if your space can’t accommodate that, Farrell suggests choosing the sarcococca hookeriana variety digyna. “It’s a beautiful plant that produces fragrant white flowers in winter and deep red or purple berries after it’s flowered,” she says.
And don’t be in too much of a rush to compost summer flowers, such as echinacea, alliums and heleniums. These have especially attractive seedheads, particularly when the frost covers them.
Add some colour
Window boxes planted with white, red and pink cyclamen peeping up above shiny, heart-shaped leaves will remind you that there is life in the earth, however hard the wind and rain lash at your windows. These hardy little souls brave the cold to give you flowers and an abundance of colour while you wait for the first snowdrops of spring.
For something more ethereal-looking, opt for a cluster of hellebores in a deep container. Their delicate appearance and bowed heads belie their hardiness. They come in soft purples, whites, palest green and dusty pink, with bright yellow stamens at their centre, and look wonderful on their own in a pot or interplanted with ferns.
“Perennials such as hellebores are an excellent idea,” says Farrell. “They’ll give you something pretty to look at for many winters to come.”
You can add interest to a small hanging basket filled with bright, sunny pansies with a couple of small-leaved trailing ivy plants that will hang down over the container to give movement, texture and nuanced shades of green.
Play with your pots – move them around, look at the shadows the plants cast, and how their silhouettes look. The days may be short, but that’s no excuse for not getting outside and enjoying your patch of nature at different times of the day.
Embrace the unusual
Granted, they’re not for everyone, but one or two vibrant pink ornamental cabbages set against a backdrop of evergreen foliage in a trough will give you a display that is easy to maintain. Just be sure to give them good drainage or their lovely ruffled leaves could turn yellow.
“Perennials such as hellebores are an excellent idea. They’ll give you something pretty to look at for many winters to come”
Holly Farrell, garden designer
The grass is always, always greener. One or two large planters filled with grasses could add poetry to your patio. Festuca glauca (‘golden toupee’) is striking, its needle-like leaves changing hue throughout seasons, while an evergreen sedge will bring the colour of a summer lawn to your home in mid-winter.
Eranthis hyemalis (‘winter aconite’), brings a burst of buttercup yellow to dark January days. Its shallow roots make it ideal for smaller containers, and it is said to be one of the least demanding plants you could hope to find. It flowers, then dies back and pops up again the following winter.
Enjoy the winter wonders
When planning a trip to the garden centre, remember that everything grows slowly in winter, so go for bigger, more established plants, and buy enough to fill your containers and avoid having a sparsely planted pot.
As with all planting, check that the plants will be suitable for the level of sunshine, their positioning and the soil in your garden. The Royal Horticultural Society has advice on assessing your plot and choosing the right plants.