Keeping Scottish Gardens Interesting through Winter

Some may say that one of the secrets to a successful garden is to keep interest going all year round. This can often be challenging depending on your gardens aspect and susceptibility to frost and so on, but not impossible. Don't just think flowers for colour, think wider and look at what else can provide interest and colour through those cold dark months. 

The bark of Acer griseum

We often think of winter here in Scotland, especially January and February, as dull, cold, dreich months with nothing growing and little interest out side. But delve below the fallen leaves and last years plant debris and there are winter gems waiting to be found. Even high up in the hills here in the Scottish borders there is life and colour. It's one of the great things about doing the winter tidy up after new year, finding all those evergreens and spots of colour in the borders, oh and the garden looks so much tidier and ready for the coming year too of course.

Prunus serrula

By now we are all desperate to see some signs of plant life and growth. Further south and in more sheltered lower lying parts of Scotland there will be Snowdrops and hellebores coming into flower. Up here at 850 feet above sea level and above it happens a lot later, so our winter season is much longer. This is where incorporating as much colour by way of stems and evergreens is important from a visual point of view and to make us feel better. 

Variations in bark colour 

of Betulas

Betula jaquemontii peeling in 

Dawyck Gardens
There are many trees and shrubs that have interesting and colourful bark all year round, these are particularly noticeable in winter once the leaves have dropped and the framework and beauty of the tree is revealed. Prunus serrula and Betula are two of my favourites. The peeling pinky red bark of the Prunus and the white papery bark of the Betulas have a certain tactile appeal: you just have to touch them. Depending on variety some Betulas are much whiter, B. jaquemontii and B. 'Snow Queen' are two of the best. Some Acers are also grown for their bark colour and texture, be it the brown flaky bark of A. griseum or the white lined bark of the snakebark Acers including A. capillipes whose leaves also turns a vibrant red in autumn. 

The bark of a Snakebark Acer

Coming down in scale, consider shubs that flower in winter such as Cornus mas and several varieties of Viburnum. Look out for Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn', this is a strong plant with pink scented flowers throughout winter, it can reach eight to 10 feet over time and is well worth the space as a back drop to a border. A Viburnum that ticks two boxes is V. tinus, which is evergreen and flowers in winter with its pink buds opening into white scented flowers. It is good as an evergreen screen or back-drop to a border, giving form and interest all year round. Cornus mas produces gloriously yellow flowers in later winter, creating a bright spot in the garden: well worth growing for something different.
Many Cornus are grown for their red bark, pollarding every few years will keep
the young colourful shoots fresh and the shrub a neat shape and size.
This is C. alba 'Elegantissima', a variegated variuety

The flowers of Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn'

Viburnum tinus

Cornus mas

Mahonia flower in late winter with golden yellow scented flowers

Evergreens are essential to form a frame work in the garden when perennials are dormant and deciduous trees and shrubs are bare of leaves. They add height, shape and colour to what could otherwise be a flat landscape. Conifers are the obvious choice here, hardy, easy to grow and come in many colours and shapes to suit every taste. I prefer evergreen shrubs such as Viburnum davidii with its glossy leaves, Viburnum tinus and its winter flowers, Holly, especially I. ferox and I 'Blue Princess' for something quite different. For a zing of colour try Euonymus 'Emerald Gaiety' or Euonymus 'Emerald n Gold', both are evergreen with bright variegation.

Display table full of winter interest trees and shrubs here in the nursery

In amongst shrubs and trees plant grasses, ferns and perennials that keep going through winter. Grasses such as Carex, Miscanthus, Chionochloa, Luzula, Stipa and Festuca are evergreen, providing great shape and colour in the winter garden. Don't cut the flower heads off until late winter when you start the garden tidy up and you have great arching and spiky seed heads that will hold the frost on cold days, adding height and interest as they sparkle in the winter sun. You can see what grasses we have in stock on the Grasses page on the website here 

Chionochloa rubra

Stipa gigantea

Evergreen perennials are more limited and tend to be smaller, but can be used for good ground cover and front of border interest. As with the grasses you can also leave seed-heads on the plants through winter.  Ajuga, Bergenias, Hellebores, Epimediums, some Geraniums and Geums, Heucheras, Iris foetidissima, Liriopes and Ophiopogon (grass-like but not a grass), all have leaves through winter. Some perennials do keep a certain amount of leaves, depending on the weather conditions and severity of the winter. 

Ophiopogon nigrescens

Bergenias looking good with frost

I went searching in my own garden this week for winter colour and interest
and this is what I found

Tellima grandiflora Rubra group and
Polystichium setiferum

As well as placing these plants in borders, also fill up containers and tubs where you can see them from the house, so even on the coldest dullest day you can still benefit from that winter colour when gazing out the window wishing the sun would shine. 

Buxus sempervirens or common box

Use evergreen hedging plants, especially box either as hedging or topiary to give you evergreen form and shapes as a back ground for other plants or on their own in the border or pots. They can be quite structural and with a coating of frost bring an ethereal look to the garden.

Cyclamen hederifolium

For a classic planting idea under trees and shrubs plant Cyclamen hederifolium, although small they cover them selves in white or pink flowers and even when not flowering the foliage has distinct silver markings which really stand out. When I buy them I make sure I buy plants with well marked leaves, meaning I now have some interesting seedlings growing.

Hedera hibernica 'Rona'

Don't just think trees and shrubs when you want to go upwards. Ivies will give you evergreen foliage in many different patterns of green, gold and silver. There are winter flowering clematis but I've never had any success with them in our high up gardens here.

Lamium maculatum 'Beacon Silver' and
 Heucherella 'Brass Lanterns'

Polypodium x mantoniae

Evergreen ferns are well worth growing in shady places, especially Polypodium which make good ground cover and cope with dry shady conditions and shallow soil. Asplenium scolopendrum 'Angustatum', Blechnum spicant, Dryopteris erythrosora and Polystichiums will give a varied and interesting display all year.

Sequoia sempervirens

If you have the space some grand conifers will add height and interest, give them room to grow to their natural shape and you can have year round interest. Dotted about in a mixed border they add height and act as a back drop for perennials and bulbs.

Vinca minor and it's cultivars make good
ground cover in most conditions
 and flower from spring onward

Euphorbia characias subsp. Wulfenii

Up in the hills here a sheltered corner will help Euphorbia characias subsp. Wulfenii escape the worst of the winter. This one at home is going into it's third year and is growing very well and is infact still flowering even in winter. It is evergreen and doesn't die back as some Euphorbias do, just cut out the old stems once they die back.

Flowers of Euphorbia characias subsp. 

Euonymus 'Emerald and Gold', great for winter colour, this one brightens
 up a dark corner, even when covered in snow

Bergenia 'Claire Maxine'

If you are going to grow Bergenia, make sure you plant a variety that has great colour in autumn and winter and get more year round value for your money. There are several varieties that are especially colourful in winter including Bergenia 'Claire Maxine' and Bergenia 'Wintermarchen'

Heuchera, nature makes the best hearts

One of my Spotted Hellebores

When planning a garden or a border always try to think what you can grow at every time of year and in every month. Bulbs, perennials and annuals are great from early spring right through to autumn and into winter if the weather is favourable. Look at your borders and if there is a space at any time of year, research what looks good at that time of year and fill that space. You will end up with a successive border that always has something flowering, has berries, coloured stems or foliage (think also autumn colour and evergreens). 

Ilex pernyi

Taxus baccata Fastigiata 
Aurea Group

Ilex 'Blue Princess'
Rhododendrons at Crarae

So there we are, a wee round up of what can brighten up the garden at this time of year, especially here in Scotland and in the Scottish borders hills in both my nursery and own garden. Hopefully I've given you some inspiration to create an all year round garden or even a border or containers. Most of these plants are available to buy in the nursery.

Below is a list of suitable plants recommended by the Quirky Bird Gardener.

Trees and Shrubs
Acer griseum
Acer capillipes
Berberis stenophylla
Betula pendula
Betula 'Snow Queen'
Betula 'Edinburgh'
Cornus alba 'Sibirica'
Cornus mas
Euonymus 'Emerald n Gold'
Euonymus 'Emerald Gaiety'
Ilex ferox
Ilex 'Blue Princess'
Mahonia x media 'Charity'
Prunus serrula
Taxus baccata 'Standishii'
Viburnum davidii
Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn'
Viburnum tinus

Luzula nivea
Luzula sylvatica

Iris foetidissima



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