Hell's angels: Hellebores add some cold-season cheer


Winter bedding is not the most glamorous of ideas. Especially when it comes to those acres of monocolour pansies. It's sort of an amazing achievement to ruin the pansy – they are this great, characterful little flower, in bright colours, with spirited little markings on their faces, which they hold up high to the sun. But ruin them people consistently do: stroll into your local DIY shop in the next few weeks and there will be polystyrene trays of them by the hundred, stacked and ready for non-gardeners to progressively kill over the coming months.

Another winter option to be avoided at all costs is those brightly coloured polyanthus, which come in the wonderful shades of Kaffe Fassett tapestry, but without any of the skill. Unless you are Kaffe himself, I think it's best to steer clear. One massive problem of both pansies and polyanthus is that they stay low to the ground, never getting any taller than the day you purchase them, so unless you actually wanted the area bedded for winter to look like a Victorian map of the British empire, all flat colour and no structure, avoid.

So what are our genuine options for winter? I'm a big advocate of hellebores (above), a group of plants that begin blooming around Christmas and on into the grey months beyond. They have jewel-like flowers, are long-lasting and exquisite – most of what you want from a bit of winter bedding. And the colours! Faded hippy velvets, Jimi Hendrix jackets, huntsmen's coats: delicious.

Breeders have even begun to develop double-bloomed varieties, which are so heavy with flowers they start to look almost like peonies. But hellebores tend to hang their heads down, so you need to plant them somewhere you'll see them. They're perfect for windowboxes where you can actually open the window, or tubs by front doors. Crocus.co.uk currently has a tempting pack of six for £16.99, on special offer, including different varieties which will see you almost through to the solstice. And if you really can't stand the shoegazing element, plump for Helleborus niger, which tends to stand up straighter.

However, you may be the kind of person who prefers to pass the winter months with the garden looking neat and tidy, rather than hunting around among the shrubbery for flowers. An option here is to go for clean structure and, as always, box in various shapes is a popular choice. The trickiest thing with box is to get the watering right, in my experience, especially where they are planted in containers. Spring could be pricey if you fail, so be diligent and you'll be rewarded by its delicious soft-green new growth as soon as days start to lengthen.

Finally, for fragrant greenery throughout the winter, think Sarcococca. I know it sounds like a major global illness threat, but it's actually just a sweet little plant with the most beautiful scent on cold, still days. Perhaps best called by its appealing common name, "Christmas Box", it's a snip at £9.99 from Crocus.

Winter wonders

For the minimalist

Festuca glauca "Elijah Blue" is a strong, refined way to plant winter windowboxes and garden gaps, and will look beautiful for a good few months. £6.99 each, crocus.co.uk

For the colour connoisseur

The perks of being a wallflower? The selection of colours is getting better every year. And "Winter Sorbet" takes in both soft lilac and a bright burnt orange. Four jumbo plugs, £13.99, thompson-morgan.com

For the recidivist windowbox killer

Crocus has a self-watering terracotta window planter with a gauge to warn you when its reservoir is getting low. £13.49, crocus.co.uk