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Best plants for winter interest

crab apples in winter
Crab apples provide excellent winter interest and can be made into delicious crab apple jelly.
Image: Dreamstime

Your garden needn't look bare in winter. While most plants are enjoying their winter dormancy, there are plenty that will grab the limelight! Winter interest in the garden doesn't just come from flowers. Many plants are useful for their brightly coloured foliage, attractive winter stems or fabulous fragrance.

Bare Stems

winter stems
Plant Cornus in groups for the most dramatic displays of winter stems.
Image: Shutterstock

Colourful stems provide both architecture and vibrancy to the garden in winter. Having shed their summer foliage, these plants often look strikingly different in winter, bringing fabulous seasonality to planting schemes.

Cornus (Dogwoods) are some of the best for colour, at their most beautiful when backlit by the low winters sun. There are plenty of species to choose from, providing a vibrant range of colours. Plant a group of fiery Cornus sanguinea 'Anny's Winter Orange' to create a blaze of colour. For a more subtle display, mix the yellow stemmed Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' with the crimson Cornus alba. Less showy, but equally good is Cornus alba 'Kesselringii' with dramatic, black stems and a stiffly upright habit.

Stems don't need to be colourful to create a magical wonderland. The frosted stems and seedheads of some Ornamental grasses can make an equally showy display. Miscanthus sinensis 'Silberspinne' is one of the best, creating intricate silhouettes and delighting the senses as the straw-like stems, rustle in the breeze.

Walls and Fences

pyracantha berries
Pyracantha can be trained as a wall shrub to provide colour and cover drab, bare walls
Image: Shutterstock

Bare walls and fences can be a depressing sight in winter. Evergreen climbers and winter flowering wall shrubs overcome this, providing colour, hiding unsightly structures and blurring garden boundaries.

The canary yellow blooms of Jasminum nudiflorum (Winter Jasmine) are unmissable in winter. Tie its sprawling stems against a wall using taut horizontal wires, and let them cascade downwards joyously downwards in a shower of blooms.

In sheltered positions try something a little more refined such as Clematis urophylla 'Winter Beauty'. The dark, evergreen foliage is perfect for covering unsightly structures, making the delicate blooms stand out beautifully.

Wall shrubs and climbing plants can also offer food and shelter for wildlife. The brightly coloured berries of Pyracantha are loved by birds and bring a bright splash of colour to the garden.

Evergreen Structure

 evergreen hedges in the snow
Even in snowy weather, evergreen shrubs and hedges provide structure in the garden.
Image: Shutterstock

Evergreen plants are the backbone of the garden, providing structure and colour throughout the year. Evergreen foliage offers a welcome distraction from muddy borders, naked stems and grey winter skies!

Box and Yew are superb for introducing evergreen formality to the garden. Both are can be coaxed to form pyramids, spheres, intricate creatures and other topiary features. They are perfect for defining boundaries too, making them an ever present feature in the gardens of stately homes up and down UK.

Conifers are often overlooked, but these low maintenance plants also provide excellent evergreen structure. Ranging from dwarf conifers for the rockery, right through to the majestic columnar Italian Cypress – there's something to suit every garden!

If your garden style is more relaxed then evergreen grasses and sedges such as Carex comans 'Bronze Perfection' offer a softer, more textural appearance. They make useful plants for winter containers, making great partners for winter pansies.

Winter Blooms and Berries

 Holly berries
Holly berries are unbeatable for bringing some festive cheer to the garden.
Image: Dreamstime

If you are missing the vibrancy of summer borders, then a few well-placed, winter-interest plants can make a world of difference. There are a surprising number of plants that produce vibrant blooms and berries. Position them close to the house where they can be fully appreciated.

The easiest way to introduce winter colour is to plant some hardy shrubs. Camellia 'Yuletide' is aptly named, flowering across the Christmas period in a festive shade of crimson red. The spidery flowers of Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise' or Witch Hazel as it is best known, also make a colourful display with a pleasing elegance in garden borders.

Berries can be as attractive as blooms! Holly is one of our most iconic trees in winter, with female varieties producing fabulous displays just in time for Christmas. Better still, the glossy, prickly foliage is evergreen. Crab Apples also produce colourful fruits. Try Crab Apple 'Prairifire' for fruits that persist well into winter. Be mindful where you position Crab Apples though as their fruits can be messy when they fall to the ground.

Don't forget to brighten up your patio pots too. Pansies are a great choice to see you through the coldest months. Team them up with evergreen shrubs and grasses such as Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' and Carex 'Evergold' , for patio containers that will withstand the worst of the winter weather. Plant some Primroses too – they will start into flower as the pansies begin to fade, keeping the display going well into spring.


 Chimonanthus flowers
Chimonanthus has an exquisite winter fragrance.
Image: Dreamstime

There are a surprising number of fragrant shrubs for winter gardens. These brave plants offer a much needed lift for the senses, on winter's darkest days, when most plants are enjoying their dormancy. Many make excellent stems for winter flower arrangements, filling your home with intoxicating perfume.

Chimonanthus is an elegant shrub with the most fabulous perfume. Although pretty, the flowers aren't especially showy, but who cares when it smells this good? With delicate pink blooms, Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' is another deciduous shrub with a lovely scent.

Sarcococca and Daphne odora benefit from evergreen foliage as well as a rich, heady perfume. Plant them in a prominent spot where you can appreciate their good looks as well as their scent.

You don't need a big garden to enjoy winter fragrance. Even on the smallest balcony you can enjoy the delicate fragrance of Winter Pansies such as Pansy 'Plentifall' Mix. Plant them in hanging baskets either side of a well-used doorway.

Indoor Gardening

Spring bulbs indoors
Bring the garden indoors by 'forcing' spring bulbs such as Hyacinths.
Image: Dreamstime

When it's just too cold outside, you can still enjoy growing plants indoors. Some spring flowering bulbs can be 'forced' into flower early by providing a cool, dark period prior to planting in autumn. You can buy 'prepared' bulbs which have already undergone this treatment. Potted bulbs make a fabulous addition to your home, introducing plenty of colour and fragrance.

Amaryllis is a well-loved indoor bulb, making a showy display. These exotic beauties produce trumpet shaped blooms on tall upright stems. There are a phenomenal range of colours to choose from, making these a firm favourite for conservatories and bright windowsills.

Hyacinths and Narcissus make equally good choices for an indoor display. Both are fragrant and easy to grow, although the heady scent of Hyacinth can be a bit much in a confined space!

Winter Bulbs

 snowdrop in the snow
Snowdrops are eagerly awaited by gardeners each year!
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The delicate blooms of winter bulbs peeping through the cold earth is one of the most heart-warming sights in the garden. Tough and reliable, they return year after year, slowly spreading to create colonies that carpet the ground.

No article about winter plants would be complete without the Snowdrop! This much-loved bulb is eagerly awaited by gardeners each year. Perfect for naturalising in borders, particularly at the base of deciduous trees and shrubs.

Aconites are some of the cheeriest bulbs for the garden. Their golden flowers and bright green collars make an eye-catching splash of colour. They will virtually look after themselves once established.

Winter-flowering Crocus and Iris reticulata make lovely bulbs for the rockery or planted into troughs and containers.

With a little planning you can still enjoy your garden in winter. The key is to locate your favourite plants for winter interest in a prominent spot where you will see (and smell) them every time you pass!