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Using Plants in the Winter Garden

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

I love the way a garden marks the passing of time, with seasonal events to look forward to each year. While summer is often the garden's big show time, there is every reason to look forward to a range of garden highlights, right in the depths of these cold, dark winter months.

Some garden effects can only exist during these times and when designing a winter garden, it is worth taking advantage of these. The best winter gardens make use of this season's soft colours, crisp tonal contrasts and the effect of frost or even snow as it blankets our winter garden plants on the coldest of days.

Winter light here in the Northern Hemisphere is soft and slanting. The colours of the countryside are muted, often bordering on ethereal. Mist and frost blankets morning hillsides, coating them in soft blue greens. So often, this is coupled with the most amazing gentle yellow pink skies radiating out from a slow-rising winter sun.

Well chosen flowers and foliage blend seamlessly with this natural winter colour scheme.

Lavenders, rock rose and juniper take on the tones of frost laden fields before the frost has even hit, with their sumptuous blue-green leaves, while the dark, evergreen leaves of box, yew, hellebores and native iris make a bold contrast, remeniscent of stands of coniferous forest, holding on to their dark green foliage through these winter months.

These evergreens are the perfect backdrop for splashes of winter colour. Winter is a great time to get creative and make the most of not just flowers, but also foliage, catkins and even stem and seedhead colour.

In my garden, I have gentle winter yellows from our Native Primrose and from Hazel catkins, soft yellow greens and pinks from hellebores.

Primrose flower in winter
Primrose flower in winter

Winter flowering hellebore
Beautiful Hellebore flowers can be found in gorgeous soft pinks through to pale yellow-green

Cool blues shine out at this time of year, even on the greyest of days and I love to include hoardes of blue winter flowering violas to provide some much needed cheer.

winter viola plants
Violas with their funny faces always cheer up a cold winter day!

Seedheads, from plants such as Echinops ritro, Mondarda and our native teasel all look just as good as the flowers ever did and in winter, their soft tan-browns play especially well against either a dark evergreen or muted green-blue leaf. They also make a brilliant focal point for frosty mornings, catching the frost like exquisite, living, garden sculptures.

teasel winter seed heads
UK Native plant Teasel has a striking sillouette and makes a great addition to a winter wildlife garden

In contrast to these pale, muted tones, I have dark, sombre reds from heucheras and Ajuga, with splashes of winter bright coming in from rosehips and hawthorn berries.

Ajuga reptans in winter
Ajuga reptans, 'Caitlin's Giant' fills a shady spot with year round colour
Rosehips - Rosa rugosa
The fat rosehips of Rosa rugosa

Willow and dogwood stems can offer some fantastic fiery tones to brighten up a sunny spot.

Fiery willow stems in winter
Fiery willow stems in winter

No winter garden design is complete though without those pure whites. Whites give a garden that classic winter sparkle. Lenten rose flowers right through the winter and is a great one for a shady spot or in a patio pot.

Hellebores or Lenten Rose
Hellebores, or 'Lenten Rose' are one of the largest and most beautiful of winter flowers.

Winter blossom is quite a wonder and always stops me in my tracks. Viburnus bodnantense looks and smells amazing right through the winter, with sweet clusters of pink-white flowers held against a backdrop of dark winter stems.

Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' in winter
White flowers, tinted subtly with white, Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' is a striking winter feature

Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis' is simply quite spectacular at this time of year. This is my very favourite ornamental cherry, with a full canopy of amazing, almost glowing flowers right through the winter months. Mine has a few years to go before I can enjoy that full canopy effect, but already I'm getting some gorgeous sprays of winter blossom.

Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis'
The very beautiful Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis'.

Later in the winter though, nothing quite compares to the hopeful sight of emerging snow drops, full of promise for the year ahead. An absolute must to complete the winter garden.


These are some of my favourites, but I'd love to hear from you too! Share your favourite winter plants in the comments below!

If you're looking for help designing your own winter garden, do get in touch to book a one to one consultation session or to commission your own bespoke garden design.

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