Gardening: Plants for blooming winter: How to add scent and colour in cold, hard times, by Mary Keen

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GARDEN CENTRES have a lean time in the winter. They do not expect to hear the merry sound of the till before the first Bank Holiday weekend. This is the start of the season for fair-weather gardeners, who put their gardens to bed in the autumn and wake them up again at Easter. Most gardeners in Britain fall into this category, but there is another type for whom the season never closes.

All-weather gardeners visit one another on January afternoons

when the wind is cold and the air is damp. They stand outside talking through their scarves about the number of spots on a snowdrop's petal. Around the doors to their houses, the smell of daphne or honeysuckle or Christmas box is strong and sweet, and in their brown flower beds you can see patches of shocking pink and yellow and blue.

Fair-weather gardeners may prefer to stay indoors but even they have to leave the house occasionally. There are, too, many days between Christmas and Easter when it is a pleasure to be in the open air. During the odd warm spell and the compulsory trips outside, a patch of colour or a waft of scent makes a lovely trailer for spring.

The choice of plants for winter is huge. At Polesden Lacey, Surrey, a property of the National Trust, the Edwardian all-weather hostess Mrs Ronald Greville had a 50-ft square winter garden dominated by four Parrotias and underplanted with winter flowers. This layout still exists (it is possible to see and smell the flowers of winter at Polesden Lacey every day from 11am-6pm). Modern gardeners, alas, do not have the scope of a Mrs Greville, but a patch or two is not beyond most means.

In a shady corner against a building or a fence, the yellow winter jasmine with shooting stars down its green stems all winter would still be my first choice, although the all- weathers would probably go for something rarer. At its feet, a bush or two of Christmas box (Sarcococca hookeriana digyna) would provide scent until the spring. Add a choice hellebore - don't buy an unnamed garden centre seedling, lash out on a cross between the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, and the Corsican hellebore with apple-green flowers (H corsicus). At last week's Royal Horticultural Show in Vincent Square, London SW1, where all- weather gardeners like to shop, a good small specialist nursery was selling plants of H nigercors (the name of this cross) for pounds 10. This is not a lot to pay for years of pleasure from beautiful dark leaves bearing saucer-sized greeny-white flowers during three hard months. Avon Bulbs (0460 42177) also sell white H orientalis guttatus. These are the ones with stippled petals and would also look good in the winter corner.

In the same area there ought to be room for a few plants of Cyclamen coum, the all-weather flower no gardener can afford to miss. It comes in shocking pink, pale pink and white forms; outside my kitchen window a two-foot square clump of brightest pink is lovely now. But the finest

display I have seen recently was on the roadside bank of a Hampshire nursery, where drifts of Cyclamen coum appeared to have naturalised themselves. The best winter tonic of all would be cyclamen grown in this way. But it would take years, if you had the skill and patience to grow them from seed, and plants would be prohibitively expensive. Some of these cyclamen have silver-marked leaves which last beyond their winter flowers. The best forms are 'Pewter leaf' and silver leaf.

The place where I stopped in jealous admiration was Blackthorn Nursery at Kilmeston, Alresford, Hampshire. This owner-run establishment is open only on Friday and Saturday from 9am to 5pm between the beginning of March and the end of October and does not do mail order. But its roadside drifts of cyclamen and stock of exciting plants are worth a weekend visit in season. Blackthorn Nursery also grows (but will not sell until its stocks have been replenished) that all-weather winter favourite Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill'. If you are lucky, you might see and smell this rarity.

But there are other early daphnes that are easier to acquire. The white mezereum and the gold-rimmed odora 'Aureomarginata' are out before the daffodils and forsythia: a bush of either of these will scent the air for yards around. In a friend's garden recently I saw a white Daphne mezereum which stood almost 5ft tall, much larger than usual. It was clearly a superior form, and made me realise how important it is to grow the best selected forms of these precious early flowers. If you are only going to plant one or two things for this non-gardening season, it is worth pursuing quality plants from specialist growers. The best places to see and buy these are the RHS's Vincent Square flower shows; the next is on 16 and 17 March.

WINTER WONDERS

Here are some special plants which can be relied on to look or smell good during the long lull

between Christmas and Easter.

LARGE SHRUBS

Cornus mas 'Variegata'; Garrya elliptica 'James Roof'; Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise' (do not plant on chalk) and 'Pallida' (again, not on chalk); Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis'

MEDIUM SHRUBS

Abeliophyllum distichum; Corylopsis pauciflora (not on chalk); Lonicera 'Winter Beauty'

WALL SHRUBS

Azara microphylla; Clematis

balearica 'Wisley Form'; Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori' and 'Omoi-no-mama'

SMALL PLANTS

Helleborus Ballard's strain black seedlings; Pulmonaria 'Mawson's Blue'; Ribes laurifolium; Viola 'Coeur d'Alsace'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments