Crisp days create a life affirming ‘New Year’; blue skies framing frozen cobwebs threading through borders of old flower stems and grasses, contrasting sharply with those other days; heavy and still with damp fog suspended, lacking the vigour to disperse.
January flowers are perhaps the most precious of all. Hidden, literally, under shrubs all year, to open in the deepest winter. There are fewer pollinators now, so these plants work even harder to be noticed, usually with the most intoxicating scent rewarding you too as you seek them out. One only needs a couple of branches to bring inside and enjoy.
That is what is so wonderful about winter gardens. Seemingly more discerning, quietly confident and reliable. When ones peak in the darkest season, you have to be. Patiently waiting for the garden to retreat, when these treasures to shine.
Often thriving in woodland conditions, perhaps under deciduous canopies or in north facing gardens, winter flowers appreciate the less than attractive spots. They are very accommodating in their needs - giving more than they take. Creating ground cover and backdrops, usually green, unassuming foliage that sparkle into the winter months, these plants are failsafes, reliable and hard working. Use them as a foundation for your planting design and permanent cut flower borders; you’ll be delighted each and every year for your foresight.
The Hellebore has varieties that flower successionally from January through to April, with the whites flowering earliest. Helleborus niger is snow white and delicate with the H. Winterbells seemingly tougher with robust flowers in shades of pink flowering it’s socks off. They last for ages if you cut when the flower stamens drop and the seed heads develop. Enjoy the flowers outside and bring the mature ones in for double value.
Then there are snowdrops and tiny cyclamen. Plant in shallow pots for tables and window boxes to enjoy more easily. Weave clematis cirrhosas across fences and through mature trees with nodding bells. Winter jasmine grown against walls and fences with bright yellow flowers gives a little sunshine just as it’s needed.
Finally some shrubs. Like the little black dress - works in any location, any event, any style - lonicera ‘winter beauty’ and sarcoccoa. Absolute heaven. Contorted hazel is a back of a garden or border plant and in the winter comes into it’s own, providing such interesting stems for decoration. Colourful cornus loose their leaves and reveal striking coloured stems - especially the Midwinter Fire. These grown with stipa arundincea, a beautiful evergreen grass with rusty blooms are some classic combinations with good reason.
For drama and structure, this year I will be planting a Garrya eliptica. Slow growing, but I thought that about the arbutus and 10 years later, I am very grateful I planted that small shrub when I did. The best day to plant anything was ten years ago, second best time is today!
It is certainly worth a trip to the National Trust’s Anglesey Abbey for their Winter Walk for inspiration, Wimpole and the Cambridge Botanical Gardens too. Be captivated by the scent in the air and layers of planting revealed.
I maintain that winter celebrations for weddings and parties, whilst requiring decoration with great restraint and delicacy, have some of the most wonderful fragrance and shape. The sparseness of January focus’ attention making what is there, even sweeter. It is meant to be sparse. We are wintering. Reducing all but the essential and allowing that to shine. I can’t think of a more romantic time of the year in the garden.
Originally published in Cambridge Edition January 2023