Peter Dowdall on the reliability of winter shrubs and trees for much-needed colour
One of the lovely things about living in this part of the world is that the world outside never stays the same, we have seasons and it is the changing of the seasons that makes gardening here so much more than just a chore, it gives us a connection to the garden. At this time of year as the natural world outside is grinding to a halt and the clever animals are preparing for hibernation so too do we head for the cover of indoors and that most leisurely of gardening pursuits, the perusal of seed and bulb catalogues for next year.
It’s by making the most of and working with the seasons that we get the best from our gardens. Every garden needs its evergreens but a garden full of nothing but will offer little in terms of seasonal change and thus you will miss out on some of the finest if temporary displays in the garden. Imagine no walls clothed in the burning red of Parthenocissus, the Boston Ivy and Virginia Creeper during the autumn. To miss the unfurling of the silver grey leaves of Sorbus aria Lutescens or Swedish Whitebeam in the spring is nearly to miss the season itself or what about a garden with no spring bulbs. A garden full of evergreen presence without some herbaceous to fill in the gaps is not a truly happening garden.
Equally however if you rely totally on these ephemeral displays you can be left with a garden that offers little or nothing during these quiet winter months. For me a good garden needs a combination of both. It needs evergreen plants for year round interest along with the importance of these for local biodiversity, many of them providing safe places of refuge for birds, hedgehogs and other wildlife. So to the garden needs some of those that will come and give of their best during the year and then disappear again.
Evergreen plants have a habit of just being there without setting the garden alight with interest or drama but to think like that is to do your garden a disservice. When I say the word ‘evergreen’ I don’t want you to think immediately of dull conifers and laurel hedges. For there are some evergreen shrubs that while present all year round they positively sparkle during this season adding some glitz for Christmas and some elegant foliage colour for the entire winter.
Skimmia Magic Marlot is a truly dwarf shrub which has a beautiful compact, dense habit. Grey green leaves are bordered with a creamy green margin and this perfectly formed little plant will cover itself in buds during autumn and hold onto these buds throughout the winter, opening up into scented white flowers during early spring. A male form of Skimmia, thus Magic Marlot will not produce berries but will pollinate any female Skimmias that may be in the garden. Do not let the fact that he won’t produce berries stop you from introducing this beautiful little plant into your garden but do remember that he will stay small and low and so where you position him will be important. It looks fantastic in a gravel bed if your garden plays home to such a thing or alternatively, he will look perfect all alone in a simple terracotta pot. Resist the urge to overdo it in a pot by mixing winter flowering pansies or Cyclamen with him, he will look much better alone.
Pittosporums too come into their own now. I have always loved one particular variety, and that is one called Garnettii . Most of the Pittosporums grown here are of the species native to New Zealand, Pittosporum tenuifolium and Garnettii is one of them. An upright shrub which will reach a height of over 4m with a spread of up to 2m this stately evergreen brings an elegance and airiness into the garden. It does have some presence due to its physical size but its colouring which is quite light means that it is not nearly as overpowering as some of the dark green evergreens. Its glaucous green leaves are edged with a cream coloured variegation and they have the lovely added feature of taking on a pink/red hue during the winter, unusual for an evergreen to offer this type of seasonal change.
Pittosporum Irene Patterson is a smaller lady reaching only about 1m in height with a similar spread – a very unflattering way to describe a lady I agree but she does provide quite the display, providing bright white and green foliage all year round but it is now with the sun low in the sky that she positively glistens. I have one in my own garden that I planted in 1997 so she’s nearly 20 years now. It doesn’t need to be pruned as such but what you will find is that if she does begin to outgrow her allotted space then it will be difficult to cut it back as the growth will be towards the extremities with woody growth inside and pruning back into this growth is not an option. Better then to give a light pruning each year and prevent her ever getting too big. Of course if there’s a flower arranger in the house then this won’t ever be a problem as she will be constantly being picked over for her foliage makes a wonderful addition to any cut flower arrangement.
So please think not only of the dreaded Leyland Cypress or any other dull evergreen when looking for some foliage to add interest and intrigue to your garden and to compliment the seasonal displays.