DURING the run-up to the festive season the garden invariably gets neglected, but as I like to have it looking just as ship-shape as the house, it always gets a thorough going over the week before Christmas. Paths and steps are swept to remove any remaining soggy foliage, all earthenware ornamental containers are moved to frost-free quarters – just in case – and watering paraphernalia such as soaking tubs, hoses and cans are removed to the potting shed or greenhouse.
Once all the leaves have fallen and the last of the herbaceous border plants have retreated below ground the garden can look rather bare in places. That’s where containerised evergreens come as a godsend. Hollies look particularly fine at this time of year, and the variegated ones are especially suited to bringing light to dark places. The cold seems to sharpen their colouring, and just one plant, placed strategically, brings plenty of bling to the dullest corner.
Ivies are indispensable in the winter garden, and the small-leaved, striped, spotted, mottled and blotched cultivars of Hedera helix are especially good for pot culture. You can – if you can be bothered – train them up a framework of canes, but to my mind they look better if left alone. They’ll drape themselves elegantly once they get going and, if placed against a wall, will soon latch on and scale it.
Those with light coloured leaves form the perfect backdrop for those hollies with dark, almost black leaves such as the so-called blue hollies: Ilex meserveae ‘Blue Prince’ or ‘Blue Princess’. Ilex aquifolium ‘Myrtifolia’ is a neat grower that forms a perfect dense cone before shooting up to form a handsome, symmetrical shrub or small tree.
I’ve always liked huddles of plants to grace steps and to enhance entrances. At Lea Gardens we change these displays four times a year, which takes a fair bit of time but is well worth the effort. The last change of the year from autumn to winter is a relatively easy one. All it takes is putting those that have provided autumn colour earlier on back to the nursery and replacing them with winter-flowering heathers and pots of bulbs that show some prominent green snouts and noses.
A well-budded rhododendron, especially one with handsome foliage, placed next to your front door is a marvellous sight, as are other shrubs with prominent winter buds.
Where there’s reasonable shelter from salty sea winds, I like to have a nice pot-grown specimen of Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’. I can’t see much difference between the two, and both flower freely once past their first flush of youth. Whorls of hard, spiky, rich green foliage are terminated by sprays of mimosa-like yellow bells with a scent to die for. The perfume is rather like that of lily-of-the-valley but stronger and with a dry, spicy finish.
I haven’t dared cut mahonia branches for the house yet, as my plants are still a little too young for plundering. But, as this shrub needs pruning after flowering to encourage it to branch and bush out, I can’t see why this pruning couldn’t take place this rather than that side of Christmas. Another way to have one’s cake and eat it would be to pick the flowers only and leave the shrub intact. Some experimenting is called for.
One of my witch hazels is now large enough to yield some material for cutting. In fact Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ is rapidly outgrowing its allotted slot against the east wall of the extension, all but blocking the path around the house. There are two options as far as I can see: moving ‘Diane’ or moving the house. As witch hazels don’t take kindly to root disturbance, and as I can’t possibly imagine life without those dark Cornelian spider blossoms, it’ll have to be the house.
There’s still time to cut some witch hazel, and some flowering currant for that matter. Given a warm but not hot spot indoors the former should be opening in time for Christmas. The latter, if you’re lucky, will open its white flowers in time for old Yule. Flowering currants, regardless of their natural floral colour, always become white, or palest pink in the deep red varieties, when forced indoors.
One absolute must for winter colour, or foliage colour at any time of year, is Pseudowintera colorata, a small New Zealand evergreen.
It is closely related to the genus Drymis which gives us the Tasmanian pepperbush and Winter’s bark, the shrub that prevented the death of thousands of sailors from scurvy due to its high vitamin C content and easy long-term storage properties.
Like its cousins Drymis, Pseudowintera also has aromatic and slightly peppery leaves, but it is their colouring that makes this plant such a first-class garden subject. They are of palest yellowish green, suffused with pink and spotted and blotched with crimson. Sometimes whole leaves or small branches take on carmine and crimson hues during the cold part of the year.
Being of very slow growth, this is the ideal candidate for a sheltered corner or small container. Mine shares a narrow raised bed against a north wall with a few South American treasures such as Philesia magellanica. All like shelter, peaty acidic soil, and are tolerant of light shade.
Primroses are also shade tolerant, and can be rather precocious, especially some of the new double strains such as ‘Rosy’ or ‘Paloma’. They often start flowering in November or December. In the open garden they can look rather lost among the brown leaves and decay, and often end up as suppers for greedy slugs. That’s why I always make sure to pot up a few divisions in late summer. Having portable flowers to place exactly where I want them is a real treat.
Another early subject for a pot by the front door is Pulmonaria rubra ‘Redstart’. This is a vigorous lungwort with plain rather than the usual spotted foliage and heads of soft coral pink flowers, often in time for Christmas, provided it has a little shelter. However tempting it might be to keep it in a pot ready for next year, don’t succumb. It is one of those plants that doesn’t care much for long confinement; far better to pot up fresh pieces each autumn.
Apart from the odd primula and pulmonaria, December isn’t a great month for flowers, but there is one herbaceous plant that can always be relied upon to provide a few sprays of its satin-textured blooms for the vase around Christmas. Schizostylis coccinea comes from South Africa, belongs to the iris family, and looks rather like a gladiolus. Apart from the species there are several cultivars, including a nice white form and a pale salmon pink. It is one of the easiest of all hardy herbaceous perennials to grow, and increases freely at the root – as long as the gardener ignores the universal advice about this little treasure: to plant it in damp, even wet ground.
Give it reasonably well-drained soil and a sunny aspect, and it’ll be long-lived, trouble-free and, provided there’s a modicum of shelter, will flower from November to May. What more can a gardener ask for?