Garden festive cheer

Give your garden, large or small, a boost of drama and colour with some winter-flowering plants says Geoff Hodge.

Helleborus niger

Don’t let the winter get you down and stop you getting outside into the garden and enjoying your favourite hobby. You might have to dress up to the nines and resemble the Michelin man with lots of padded layers, but it’s a great way to lift your spirits. The short days and low light levels are often more troublesome, messing with our mental health and wellbeing, but being out in nature can help.

It’s time to revel in all those wonderful winter-flowering plants that can bring joy to the heart and lift your mood.

In my garden, I’ve brought lots of evergreen shrubs and winter-flowering plants close to the house to look like a winter wonderland. So, even if it’s too miserable to get outside, my spirits are lifted when I look out of my conservatory to a wealth of colour and no signs of that depressing winter colour – brown!

There are numerous winter interest plants that you can grow to give your spirits a lift and here are five of my top faves.

Christmas rose

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) may not necessarily flower at Christmas, as its name suggests, but it will certainly brighten up any winter garden with its bright, cheery blooms, set off by its handsome, leathery, deep green foliage. The flowers are white, large, round and flat-faced with a delicious yellow centre (main image). It’ll need a position in partial or light shade, making it perfect for growing under other plants, at the front of a shady border or in woodland settings. One of the best, classic combos is to partner it with a bright, red-stemmed dogwood, such as ‘Sibirica’, and the low maroon-red winter foliage of a bergenia, such as ‘Bressingham Ruby’. Or grow it in a small pot placed on a patio table where you can fully enjoy the flowers.

Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’

Although regarded as deciduous, mine just outside the conservatory holds its leaves all winter. I chose this position to plant it thanks to its lovely winter flowers, produced from November to January and even later. These are densely packed in clusters, are rose, pink or blush white in colouring, arising from red buds, and very sweetly scented, hence the reason it’s near the patio, just outside the conservatory. It’s perfect for growing in the front garden or near an entrance or walkway, where its fragrant, pretty blooms can be best appreciated. It grows up to 3m (10ft) high and 2m (6½ft) wide, but I keep mine more restricted by completely cutting out around one in three of the oldest stems as soon as flowering finishes.

Viburnum bodnatense 'Dawn'
Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Image: Adobe Stock

Winter-flowering heathers

They may be relatively cheap, but they’re certainly cheerful, and everyone needs some winter-flowering heathers in their gardens. Unlike their summer-flowering counterparts, Erica carnea and Erica darleyensis can grow in alkaline soils, as well as neutral and acidic ones, as long as the soil contains lots of organic matter. They’re a brilliant choice for winter “bedding”, for growing in pots and other containers, including hanging baskets, and many are low growing, making them useful weed-smothering ground cover plants. They’ll do best in a sunny spot, but will also do well in partial or light shade too. Best of all they’re really tough and tolerate really cold weather, strong winds and even coastal conditions.

Erica carnea (Winter flowering heather)
Erica carnea. Image: Adobe Stock

Camellia vernalis ‘Yuletide’

Most camellias brighten up the garden in spring, but Camellia vernalis ‘Yuletide’, as its name suggests, stands out during the winter months, producing large, sumptuous flowers. It is covered in a profusion of striking crimson-red flowers with a golden-yellow eye from November to January, reaching a peak in December. This colouring makes it the perfect addition to the Christmas celebrations, creating a vibrant festive display. The flowers are highlighted against the glossy, dark green leaves that provide year-round structure and interest. When left to grow, this relatively compact shrub with a pyramidal habit won’t outgrow its welcome, reaching 3m (10ft) high and 2.4m (8ft) wide. But it can also be trained against a wall and will look marvellous when grown in a large pot. Give it a position in shade and especially one where it won’t be subject to early morning sunshine in winter. If you don’t have acidic soil, then grow it in a large pot filled with Flower Power Ericaceous Compost.

Camellia vernalis 'Yuletide'
Camellia vernalis ‘Yuletide’. Image: Adobe Stock


This gorgeous evergreen shrub, which is the perfect addition for even quite deep shade, doesn’t flower in winter but in spring, when its spikes of white flowers produce a wonderful, evocative scent. But it probably looks its best in winter! Female varieties, including ‘Foremanii’ and ‘Pabella’, will be covered for months on end with bright, shiny red berries or, for something different, go for ‘Kew White’, which has creamy-white berries. But don’t forget the male varieties, such as ‘Rubella’ and ‘Fragrant Cloud’. These are smothered in highly colourful flower buds in winter, lovely dark red on ‘Rubella’ and pinkie lime-green on ‘Fragrant Cloud’. And you’ll need to grow a male to pollinate the females to produce their berries. Only have room for one? Then go for the hermaphrodite Skimmia japonica reevesiana.

Skimmia japonica 'rubella'
Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’. Image: Adobe Stock

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