In winter, evergreens positively shine with pride as other deciduous shrubs drop their leaves and perennials retreat below ground to shelter from the severe weather.
It is no wonder that ancient man was mystified by holly, the plant that not only kept its leaves in winter, but also produced shining red berries in colourful defiance of frost and snow. You may not have room for holly, or any other larger growing evergreens in your garden, but you can make use of smaller ones in pots and containers to bring colour and interest to the patio and doorstep through the winter months.
Red budded Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ has to be the most popular winter evergreen shrub sold in the UK and Europe. Cut foliage and buds are used for floral decoration, small plants are used in winter planters and larger plants are widely offered as garden shrubs. Its colours suit the season: dark green and red are such iconic Christmas colours. It is a good choice for a pot in shade, plant it in sun and the leaves turn yellow. Look forward to the clusters of tiny flowers when they open in spring; the scent is delicious. Skimmia ‘Magic Marlot’ is perfect for the smallest garden. I think it is at its best in a pot where you can enjoy the cream and sage green variegated leaves and deep pink buds. It forms a neat, low mound and is more tolerant of direct sunlight than ‘Rubella’. It looks superb in midwinter and would make a great gift, much better than a poinsettia which really is just for Christmas.
Scent and colour
I love scented plants, so a plant that delivers fabulous fragrance in winter is a real bonus. The Christmas box, sarcococca has tiny pinkish-white flowers early in the New Year which will fill the garden with fragrance. A low compact evergreen it loves shade, never needs pruning and grows on most soils, however most varieties resent being grown in pots. But not Sarcococca ‘Winter Gem’. It makes a lovely dense potful; ideal to perfume your doorstep and chase away those January blues.
Some evergreens change colour in winter. As the days grow colder, the flame and scarlet shades of autumn foliage spread from deciduous trees and shrubs to evergreens blessed with this quality. Leucothoes are low evergreen shrubs with shining leaves that prefer acid soil. Grow one in a pot of lime free, loam-based growing medium and it will thrive for years. Leucothoe ‘Scarletta’ is aptly named and few other plants pack such a punch on the winter patio.
Now on to another favourite. A dwarf and compact form of the sacred bamboo, Nandina domestica called ‘Obsessed’. With stiff, fern-like foliage of olive green tinged with orange, it is an attractive subject through summer. In early autumn the colour starts to intensify reaching a crescendo of vibrant scarlet by midwinter. Great for a pot or a narrow border, grow it on its own or with Heuchera, Ajuga and Vinca. Try contrasting it with the ever popular Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’. Deservedly widely planted, its green and white variegated foliage tinges pink in winter. It makes a loose mound in a pot, can be used as shrubby ground cover, or placed against a wall or fence it will make an excellent wall shrub. It grows in sun or shade and has to be one of the most versatile evergreens in our gardens.
If any small evergreen captures the essence of the festive season it has to be Gaultheria procumbens (see main image). Forming a mat of rounded, deep green shining leaves it grows as a suckering shrub that will spread to cover the surface of pot. From autumn onwards the leaves provide the perfect background to large scarlet berries and tiny, creamy white bell-shaped flowers. Try a group of three pots, one each of the Gaultheria, Nandina and Euonymus.
Of course you could go for something more conventional, like a boxwood ball or cone (Buxus sempervirens). These are wonderfully structural and will fit into any traditional or contemporary setting. They can discolour in winter, turning bronze-orange. If this happens, feed with tomato fertiliser or any high potash flower food, like Flower Power. Adding more potash solves the problem. Add another dimension by surrounding the clipped box with the dark strappy leaves of ophiopogon or the curling creamy yellow leaves of Carex ‘Evergold’. Would you like to learn more about choosing and using shrubs for year round interest in your garden? Join me on my online course at MyGardenSchool.