Expert tips for planning a winter garden

Our Winter Colour Walk this week was a big hit with visitors, who got a special guided tour with Bodnant Garden’s propagator Alison Clarke. But don’t worry if you missed it – here are Alison’s top tips for winter gardening:

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Our propagator Alison

  When planning a winter garden picture it in layers – with trees and shrubs as the base, herbaceous plants as the middle layer and bulbs on the top of the canvas. Trees and shrubs will be permanent features so choose ones that look good all year or position them where they can be hidden later in the year by taller summer perennials. Herbaceous plants must be shade loving (if going under trees). Winter and spring bulbs will not need any light or much water during summer, so can go under or close to the base of trees and open shrubs. In the case of dense and spreading shrubs, do not plant so close that the shrub will ultimately engulf and smother the bulbs!

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Contrasting shapes and heights of evergreens

  What can provide winter colour? It’s not all about the flowers, though you do get some in winter. In order of preference, think about evergreen plants, plants with interesting stems and bark, and also those with fruit. The first two things will give colour all winter so are more important than fruit and flowers, which may be short lived. The first two also can provide structure in the form of pleasing shapes – such as the clipped Buxus balls, tall conifers and the old gnarled acer in our Winter Garden.

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Beautiful bark…Acer griseum, Cornus alba and Betula utilis

  Don’t forget the value of scent as well, which can carry a long way on a winter day. Many winter flowering shrubs are more highly scented than summer ones as they need to pull in the few pollinating insect that are around from far and wide. To make the most of scented plants place them where you can most enjoy them, at a path edge, behind a seat, by your front/back door or under a window that you open regularly.

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Flower and scent…Rhododendron dauricum, Hamamelis and Daphne 

  Winter flowering (and scented) plants are not only appreciated by us – you will be doing a huge favour for any insects that venture out in winter. They area a wonderful early source of food for bees. Birds can also benefit from any berrying shrubs that you plant…and if you feed the birds in your garden, they won’t eat so many berries to spoil the display! The best plants for berries are Ilex (holly) Malus (crabapple) Cotoneaster and Pyracantha.

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Skimmia japonica and Bergenia purpurescens ‘Helen Dillon’

  Create drama and emphasise colour by planting in big blocks, such as a group of shrubs if you have the space, or big drifts of bulbs. Planting contrasting colours (from the opposite end of the spectrum) next to each other, makes each colour appear stronger too, such as red next to blue, yellow next to violet.

 Don’t forget if you are short of space, bulbs will happily share spaces if they flower at different times – when planting daffodils you can also pop a few crocus in the same hole. You can also put early bulbs in amongst your summer flowering perennials. By the time that the perennials get going, the bulbs will have flowered and be dying back and the new growth of the perennials will help to hide their dying foliage.

Our star plants in the Bodnant Winter Garden:

  • Winter flowering rhododendrons ‘Nobleanum’ and dauricum ‘Midwinter’
  • Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ – choose plants in winter as stem colour can vary
  • Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Yelverton’ – stunning golden willow
  • Bergenia ‘Helen Dillon’ – the best bergenia in my opinion, but not widely available
  • Cyclamen coum – Plant with cyclamen hederifolium to have colour from October to March.
  • Hamamelis cultivars
  • Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ – beautifully marked bulbs
  • Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’ and Acer pensylvanicum ‘Erythrocladum’- snakebark maples
  • Sarcococca confusa and Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna – the strongest winter scent of all
  • Skimmias – these are generally either male or female. If you are planting for fruit you will need at least one male plant in your garden (or next door!)
  • Helleborus x hybridus – Used to be known as H. orientalis
  • Helleborus foetidus – native hellebore, self seeds very readily
  • Helleborus x ericsmithii – great hellebore, flowers before “orientalis” types
  • Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ – slow growing winter flowering cherry. Old plants are beautifully twisted and contorted almost like bonsai
  • Carex comans ‘Bronze’ – easy care evergreen grass
  • Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ – snowdrops on steriods! Generally best to buy and plant snowdrop “in the green” – when they have flowers and/or leaves. This is also the case for Eranthis (winter aconites)

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/BodnantGardenNT

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