It’s January, and generally our expectations of the garden are pretty low. But the fresh winter air carries uplifting floral fragrance like no other season. The low sun brings out forms and textures in a unique way. Frost catches the seedheads with sublime sparkling crystals. I think we need to raise our expectations of our gardens in winter. Learn to craft those magical winter moments, and take time to appreciate them.
Fairy lights need not be just for Christmas. Use outdoor fairy lights or spotlights to highlight winter forms and foliage. Perhaps you have a few tree stems with beautiful forms you could make a feature of, such as silver birch or multisemmed trees. A deep green ivy-covered wall speckled with fairy lights makes for a warming nighttime display. Be discerning when choosing fairy lights; warm white, dimmer bulbs with bigger spaces between them on the cable will give you a more gentle and warming effect. I always aim for the lights to look randomly spaced, like the night sky itself.
It’s almost a cliche, but evergreen shrubs and hedges are generally the year-round backbone structure of the garden. If you can create an appealing and balanced composition of these, everything else will fall into place no matter the season. While winter is not the ideal time for planting, provided the ground is not sodden or frozen, you could work on developing these “bones” of your garden, or just make plans for spring planting. Think about lines, forms, sightlines, and how the structural components work as the lead role in winter, but a supporting role in summer.
Nothing contrasts so beautifully against an evergreen backdrop as golden winter seedheads of ornamental grasses. For strong uprights, Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' is undoubtedly the best, holding up longest in a sheltered position. For floating featherlike fluffy seedheads that catch the low winter sun, choose a Miscanthus variety that reliably flowers in your climate, because not all will reach flowering in an average year. Miscanthus transmorrisonensis and Miscanthus sinensis 'Flamingo' are reliable in Yorkshire. These are best planted in spring but you can get them ordered now and keep them somewhere sheltered.
Winter-flowering shrubs are all the more beautiful for their jewel-like presence in a season otherwise devoid of blossom. For evergreen floral scent the Himalayan sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana) is a real winter treat, suited to dry shade. With a beautiful stem structure as well as the most graceful pincushion butter yellow flowers appearing on the tips of the bare branches is Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Grandiflora’, also beautifully scented. Although their colour comes at the price of their scent, Edgeworthia ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘Akebono’ are more fiery selections, with striking dragon-like blood orange petals. For other winter interest shrubs, look into the majestic witch hazels (Hamamelis), Daphne, winter flowering Viburnums and shrubby honeysuckles (Lonicera).
All that and we haven’t even mentioned the cold season staples that are hellibores, snowdrops and coloured-stem willows and dogwoods. Low expectations? Great expectations!