Gardening: It's a wintersweet symphony

Plants that will thrive, and even flower, in the winter are by definition tough yet delicate
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The Independent Culture
Considering that I am a member of the only species on this planet with the ability to imagine the future, it is extraordinary how often I am reluctant to use my undoubted powers. My "sufficient-unto-the-day" approach to life has so far prevented me from discovering whether or not my computer will crash at the millennium, and from buying a single Christmas present, even though I haven't needed much imagination to conjure up a mental picture of the shopping centre in November.

There is one area of my life, however, where I have tried always to take some thought for the morrow. Garden-making, as I know from bitter experience, never really works without some planning.

This means that at this time of year I consider, critically, what has been, and I then alter, remove or conserve, depending on my assessment of past successes and failures. Always in my mind is a pressing sense of the need to enliven the garden in the five or six months of the year when the weather is especially untrustworthy and there are no leaves on deciduous plants.

Almost half the year; that is quite a thought. I wonder who is happy with the way that their garden will look between now and March?

My experience of peering over other people's walls and fences in winter is that gardeners miss some simple tricks. If it were not for the fine old faithfuls, winter jasmine, "universal" pansies, snowdrops and aconites, there would be little flower colour at all in most gardens in winter.

Yet it is possible to do something positive about the winter garden now. The plants you need for winter flower colour and scent are already in the garden centres, ready to be dropped in the receiving earth (provided it is in suitable nick).

Most winter-flowering plants are as hardy as a gang of small boys, and considerably better behaved. Nor are they suitable only for those who live in the favoured parts of the south and west; everyone can join in this party, and the town even more so than the country. Many have sweetly scented and showy flowers, in order that they can best attract scarce winter-flying insect pollinators.

You have only to think of the witch hazels (hamamelis), Viburnum farreri and V x bodnantense `Dawn', the mahonias, the shrubby loniceras and, of course, wintersweet (chimonanthus), to realise how potent their attraction can be. A whiff of wintersweet on a grey day in February will do more to heal the soul than a whole bed full of roses in high summer.

"Winter-flowerer" is the inelegant, catch-all phrase we use for any plant that seems to depart from common sense and flower in the short days between the end of October and early March. They are not a homogeneous group, of course. Some, like mahonia `Charity' and Viburnum farreri, have already come into flower, while many others do not begin until the days start to lengthen once more. Some, such as Prunus x subhirtella `Autumnalis', have a good show of flower now, and again in early spring, but will continue to bloom in mild spells throughout the winter.

Listed in the box below is a selection of excellent winter-flowerers that are most readily available; there are no plants here that earn their place in gardens simply because it suits them to flower when so much else is dormant.

The lack of true popularity of winter-flowerers is hard fully to understand. But it must be partly because many people consider gardening a seasonal activity and, by implication, a seasonal interest, and partly because they fear that bad weather will spoil the flowers, and waste their money.

However, most of the plants in the list are merely checked by cold weather, but never really daunted by it. And, to be realistic, we have enjoyed plenty of long, mild spells in the last few winters when flowers could really give of their best.

There is another reason for reluctance, I suspect. Some gardeners feel that if they do not have space for a dedicated winter border, these winter- flowerers will dilute the impact of summer plantings.

My answer is that some, such as Garrya elliptica and the sarcococcas, are evergreen - which can be very helpful in providing structure and solidity to summer borders. Others, such as mahonias and viburnums, make excellent supports for summer-flowering clematis.

Meanwhile still others, such as Lonicera x purpusii `Winter Beauty', simply retreat gracefully into the background unnoticed, until that still, crisp day in January when you catch the delicious scent on the air and look around for a moment, bemused as to where it has come from.

All you need is a space here and there in your borders, preferably in a sheltered spot near the house - and a bit of imagination.

Cold Comforts for the Garden

Trees: Cornus mas (Feb); Prunus mume (Jan); P subhirtella `Autumnalis' (Nov-Mar)

Shrubs: Abeliophyllum distichum (flowers best against a warm wall; Feb); Camellia `Sparkling Burgundy' (evergreen; Dec); Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet; Dec-Feb); Daphne bholua `Jaqueline Postill' (evergreen; Feb); D. mezereum (Feb-April); D. odora (Jan-Mar); Erica carnea and cvs.(Jan); Erica x darleyensis (Nov-Mar); Garryra elliptica (Jan-Feb): Hamamelis species and cvs (exact purpusii and L. fragrantissima (Dec-Feb); Mahonia x media `Charity' and `Winter Sun' (Oct-Dec); M. japonica (Nov-Mar); Rhododendron praecox and R. dauricum `Midwinter' (Jan-Feb); Ribes laurifolium (Feb); Sarcococca confusa, S. humilis, S. hookeriana var. digyna (Dec-Feb); Stachyurus praecox (for acid soils, Feb-April); Sycopsis sinensis (evergreen, Feb); Viburnum x bodnantense `Dawn', V farreri, V. tinus `Eve Price' (Nov-Mar)

Perennials: Adonis amurensis `Fukujukai' (Jan-Feb); Bergenia crassifolia (February): Helleborus niger (Dec-Feb); H orientalis (Jan-April): Hepatica transsilvanica (Feb); Iris unguicularis (Jan-Mar)