How to create a colourful winter garden

PUBLISHED: 11:32 29 January 2018

Intricate detail of a hellebore (photo: Philippa Pearson)

Intricate detail of a hellebore (photo: Philippa Pearson)


Colour and interest in the garden isn’t confined to the warmer months of the year. Philippa Pearson chooses her favourite flowers, foliage, stems and bark to brighten winter

The paper-back maple has a lovely peeling texture (photo: Philippa Pearson)The paper-back maple has a lovely peeling texture (photo: Philippa Pearson)

I’m a great fan of creating a garden for year round interest. With a bit of planning and good plant selection, the garden in winter needn’t be dull and boring – you can have a colourful and even flower-filled landscape to view from the warmth of your home. The silhouetted shapes of shrubs and trees add structure, as well as interest and focal points in borders, while this is the best time to appreciate the coloured bark and stems of some plants. Winter flowers are precious jewels, and there are plenty of choices available to brighten up corners and containers. Don’t be too tidy in cutting down some of your plants in autumn either, as seed heads bring good silhouettes and architecture to borders and the birds appreciate them.


Hellebores are woodland plants with a range of colour (photo: Philippa Pearson)Hellebores are woodland plants with a range of colour (photo: Philippa Pearson)

Enjoy unusual and interesting bark on trees such as the Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii), which has stunning white bark that glows in the low winter sun. Maples are known for a vibrant autumn foliage display and some have ornamental bark. The Paper Bark Maple (Acer griseum), has peeling orange-brown bark while the Snake Bark Maple (Acer davidii), has smooth striped green and silver bark. There’s a good selection of maples that will suit smaller gardens, too. The Tibetan Cherry (Prunus serrula), has mahogany-red peeling bark which looks gorgeous in winter and the tree provides interest from blossom, fruit and foliage the rest of the year.


White trunks of the Himalayan BirchWhite trunks of the Himalayan Birch

Many shrubs are indispensable in the winter garden for their brightly coloured stems. Dogwoods (cornus) are excellent all year shrubs with lovely coloured bark, flowers in spring, followed by berries and vibrant autumn foliage. Cornus alba Sibirica variegata has vibrant red stems with creamy varietgated foliage; Cornus stolonifera Flaviramea has yellow-green stems; Cornus alba Kesselringii has black-purple stems. Hard pruning produces the best stem colour and the ideal time to do this is every two-three years around the end of February or early March; prune back to 10cm above the ground and feed well afterwards. If you have room, plant a group of Cornus shrubs to create a wave of colourful stems. Other good winter interest shrubs to try are Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle which has large creamy white domed flowerheads in summer which then dry and remain on the shrub throughout winter; sweet box, Sarcococca humilis has glossy evergreen leaves with small white and very fragrant flowers in winter, good to grow near a door; Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn is another fragrant winter flowerer with blooms borne on bare stems from autumn.


Frosted grasses add new beauty to winter gardens (photo: Philippa Pearson)Frosted grasses add new beauty to winter gardens (photo: Philippa Pearson)

Perennials for winter interest are a delight as they tend to stand out more in the garden when not competing with layers of frothy summer colour. With attractive shiny evergreen leaves that change colour in late autumn and pretty white or pink flowers in winter, Bergenias are a most useful plant. I use them under trees, at the front of borders, and they are also great for containers. Choose some of the smaller varieties such as Abendglut with shocking magenta-pink flowers, Bressingham White with white flowers and Silberlicht with pretty pale pink flowers.

Pulmonaria (lungwort), has pretty spotted ground-covering foliage for most of the year and from late January offers a welcome flower display. Flower colours range from pale to dark blue, white and pink. My favourites are Opal which has exquisite pale blue shimmery flowers and Sissinghurst White with white flowers and the best splashed foliage. Cut all leaves and old flowering spikes to ground level in mid-spring for a fresh display of foliage. Hellebores come in two options – the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger), has nodding white flowers from Christmas to early spring while the Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus) has evergreen leaves and gorgeous flowers in a variety of colours from mid-winter. There is a wonderful selection of flower colours from including white and pale pink to rich burgundy, and the seed heads that follow in early spring are an unusual shape. Cut back old leaves at the end of the year to ensure the flower spikes that follow have everyone’s full attention. Hellebores will happily self-seed, but it can take two to three years for new flowering plants to bulk out, and the flower colour may not be the same as the original parent flower.

Tactile bark of the Snake-Bark maple (photo: Philippa Pearson)Tactile bark of the Snake-Bark maple (photo: Philippa Pearson)


Ornamental grasses are one of the most useful plants in borders and easy to look after. From midsummer, foliage changes from mostly green to a lovely bronze or bleached yellow by autumn. Seed heads in winter look wonderful covered in frost or snow. Birds will love the seed heads over winter, too. Simply cut them down to ground level in March for the process to start again.

Bergenia Bressingham White (photo: Philippa Pearson)Bergenia Bressingham White (photo: Philippa Pearson)

Where to find winter flowers

Hertfordshire Hellebores

Stunning foliage on Pulmonaria Sissinghurst White (photo: Philippa Pearson)Stunning foliage on Pulmonaria Sissinghurst White (photo: Philippa Pearson)

Green Lane Farm, Levens Green, Ware SG11 1HD

The nursery is open in February and March for sales of hellebores.

Leave seed heads for structure in winter (photo: Philippa Pearson)Leave seed heads for structure in winter (photo: Philippa Pearson)

Walkern Hall

Walkern SG2 7JA

A winter woodland garden open for snowdrops and winter bulbs in February for the National Garden Scheme.

Bennington Lordship

Bennington SG2 7BS

Open for snowdrops and winter bulbs in February.

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