GARDENING / Colour in a colder climate: As the evenings draw in, Mary Keen suggests ways to keep borders bright in winter

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The Independent Culture
ALL DAY the wind sighs in the dark green trees and little apples drop upon the ground. The house martins are staging panic attacks as they rehearse for going home. There are Brussels sprouts with yellow leaves, and cabbage whites fluttering like home-made confetti among the brassicas. It's that Back to School time of year, all nippy dawns and heavy dews, when fairweather gardeners hang up their hoes and reach for their indoor shoes.

For them it's all over now, bar bonfires and holly. But for some of us, like tourists in an out- of-season resort, the garden will be better than ever. There is time and space to enjoy the flowers and leaves that will be out for the next few months, until spring comes again. No grass to mow, no weeds to pull, but in the sunny days between now and Christmas there will be plenty of pottering to do.

Bulbs are the great hope of many who are new to gardening. They stuff the ground with daffodils and wait all winter for a green nose to show, but a bare patch in September might be planted with things that would flower and smell all through that cold vigil. Autumn is the best time to start a new garden and, if it's a new garden you're after, it might as well come soon.

Gardeners who plant in September and October, instead of waiting until next Easter, will find that plants establish much more easily than they do from a start in spring. There are half a dozen plants which I could not imagine leaving out, wherever I lived, and all of them flower in winter: blossom at Christmas; cascades of yellow flowers; lily of the valley scent; irises; clematis and honeysuckle. These are only a few of the special effects that can be arranged to appear in the winter months.

If I could only grow one small tree, it might have to be the winter-flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis' - but only the white form, 'Alba'. The pink is pretty but it is rarely out by Christmas and it does not seem to last as long. Both forms make small, spreading trees which flower generously for three to four months. Where there is no room for a tree, they can be bought as bushes - so there is no excuse for not having one. The perfect spot for the winter-flowering cherry is where it can be seen from a window, preferably the kitchen. If it can be placed against a dark background of evergreen hedge or tree, you will never take your eyes off it as you wash up.

Jasminum nudiflorum, or winter jasmine, is one of those plants that is grown everywhere but always looks fresh. For months it pours its yellow stars down green shoots. In dark angles, or on cold walls, there it is flowering away. If the weather turns really bitter, a few branches brought indoors will soon open. When winter jasmine has flowered, you cut it back. It needs some help to climb a wall, but otherwise it is a paragon. Winter jasmine will grow in a large pot, up a wigwam cage of sticks to make a pyramid of golden stars.

Mahonia japonica is like a giant version of holly arranged in fans. From the centre grow yellow flowers that smell of lilies of the valley in November. There are grand hybrids of this old- fashioned shrub, with names like 'Charity' or 'Buckland' or 'Lionel Fortescue', but be warned that their flowers do not smell so well. Mahonia will grow anywhere.

Several winter flowers are good at smelling in summer. The viburnums are certainly among the 'must haves'. Viburnum farreri makes a huge, arching bush in time - the sort that might screen a dustbin or a compost heap. I have to admit, though, that it is dull in summer. Its little white flowers smell honey-sweet, but are not as good at lasting indoors as those of viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'. This is not a pretty grower with lanky bare stems, but the flowers on the knobbly twigs are pink and one is enough to scent a room. Of hellebores I often write. I think they have to be included in a 'six of the best' list. The Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, will be out for Christmas if you can get an early-flowering form. The one we grow here is huge, said to be 'Potter's Wheel', though it didn't flower for our daughter's wedding on New Year's Day. Rich, cool soil in shade is the best place for hellebores.

After my six of the best come some other winter contenders. Clematis from the Balearics (Clematis balearica) is one of them, followed by Iris unguicularis, with unbelievable papery blue flowers that unfurl from closed umbrella buds when you bring them indoors. There are also winter-flowering honeysuckle, Lonicera 'Winter Beauty' - plain but very scented; Cyclamen coum, which is shocking pink in January; and of course aconites, snowdrops, crocuses, euphorbias, pulmonarias, daphnes . . . I could go on, but there would be no room for summer flowers in anybody's garden if I did.

The snag with these wintry treasures is that they tend to be passengers in summer - but if you plant for autumn, the things that go in now will perform again before the year is out. The apple 'Discovery' has butter-yellow leaves in autumn. Its fruit is delicious home-grown, and in spring there's blossom. Many roses have fruits until Christmas, or until the birds eat them. Rugosas, with crinkly green leaves, have fat tomato hips; Rosa moyesii has lacquer-red single roses in summer and hips that look like flagons now. The Guelder rose, Viburnum 'Roseum', has flat white flowers in spring and its leaves turn red in autumn. If all this sounds like a shopping list, it is. Good shopping.

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