GARDENING: Winter plants that will warm the coldest days

Polyanthus Fire Dragon.
Polyanthus Fire Dragon.

Do you shut up shop in the garden from October to March? If you do, you’re missing the joy of growing some great plants that will warm the coldest of hearts (and days).

When choosing winter plants, positioning is everything. Plant them where you can see and smell them – near doorways, main footpaths and anywhere you sit inside and overlook.

A Viola cultivar

A Viola cultivar

It really helps thickly mulch bare soil – it shows off the plants, insulates them against extreme cold and suppresses weeds.

Here’s some of my favourite perennials and bedding:

Hellebores (Helleborus nigra, H. orientalis): The white blooms of the Christmas rose (H. nigra) contrast with its deep green foliage. Be warned - never flowers at Christmas! The Lenten rose (H. orientalis) blooms in shades of purple and white, often with burgundy speckles inside. Flowers January-April. Height 30cm.

Elephant’s ears (Bergenia): Leathery, big leaves colour up in the cold, followed by pink or white flowers in spring. Good varieties are Admiral and Baby Doll. Flowers January-April. Height 20-40cm.

Helleborus nigra, the Christmas rose.

Helleborus nigra, the Christmas rose.

Lords and ladies (Arum italicum marmoratum): Stunning white veined arrow-shaped leaves emerge in

September-October, dying down in late spring. White spathes followed by spike of poisonous red berries in autumn. Height 30cm.

Violets (Viola): Ideal for informal bedding and a prolific self-seeder. Will flower throughout winter and spring if conditions are favourable. Height 20cm.

Primrose, Polyanthus (Primula): Hundreds of varieties, from simple native yellow primrose (P. vulgaris) to vivid bedding Polyanthus such as Fire Dragon. Flowers February onwards. Height 15-30cm.

Black mondo Nigrescens (Ophiopogon planiscapus): Black, grass-like plant that performs well with spring bulbs - or against snow. Height 8cm.

AGUIDE TO WINTER BULBS

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis): It only opens its yellow globular flowers in sunshine.

Flowers February-March. Height 6cm.

Snowdrop – Galanthus): Much-loved snowdrops come in many shapes and sizes, from the single native G. nivalis to extravagant doubles like G. nivalis f. pleniflorus Flore Pleno. Flowers January-March.

Height 15-30cm.

Crocus: Much overlooked, these tiny bulbs often flower in the snow, setting off their yellow, purple and white hues. Flowers February-March. Height 5-10cm.

Iris reticulata: Katharine Hodgkin is very popular, a mixture of yellow, pale blue and purple streaks with sea-green veining and markings. Flowers February-March. Height 15cm.

JOBS FOR THE WEEKEND

Protect newly-planted trees, hedges and shrubs from wind and cold - a netting windbreak should suffice.

Pruning and renovation of some deciduous trees, shrubs and hedges, such as beech, can be carried out from now. Exceptions are tender plants, and also Prunus species (ornamental cherries, plums and almonds), as these are vulnerable to silver leaf if pruned in the autumn or winter. Evergreens are best left until the spring.

If it snows, brush it gently off the branches of conifers. Heavy snowfall can splay branches and spoil the shape of the tree.

Phytophthora root rots can cause dieback on mature trees and shrubs. Wet winter weather and poorly-drained soils are likely to encourage this problem on susceptible woody plants.

Watch out for downy mildew and black spot on winter pansies.

Look out for crown rot and brown rots (sclerotinia) on dormant perennials, especially if you are on a clay soil.

Indoors, pot up Hippeastrum (amaryllis) bulbs, and bring them back into active growth with regular watering and feeding.

Reduce watering and feeding of houseplants as the days shorten.

Cacti and succulents need a period of dormancy over the winter: keep them barely moist, and do not feed. Start them back into growth next spring. Christmas cacti can be managed in the same way as other cacti, or in reverse, for flowering at Easter or Christmas.

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