Autumn has been slow to take hold in Gloucestershire this year and so far we haven’t had a frost. The tomato plants in my greenhouse are still producing and both my apple and pear tree have not yet lost their leaves. The pear is beginning to show signs of change, slowly turning a gorgeous golden orange.
My daily garden wanders through my Cheltenham garden do not cease through the colder autumn and winter months. Even when the lawn is covered in a thin layer of snow I still venture out to explore the borders, inspect the trees, poke my head in the greenhouse, check moisture levels in pots and have a general nose around the garden. I look out for any changes and for signs of garden visitors. I check that the bird bath is clean and full (removing ice if needed), and I top up the feeders with seed and fat balls.
Adding Winter Interest
A lot of the plants in my garden are deciduous. They lose their leaves in the winter months, shutting themselves down into dormancy until the weather warms up in the spring. When the deciduous plants put themselves to bed it's the evergreen shrubs that stand out. These are the plants that create the structure in my garden, particularly in the colder months. They stand tall and proud no matter the weather. Providing a solid backdrop for spring, summer and autumn planting displays and also habitat and hiding places for birds and other small garden mammals. Some, like rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) or bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), are useful culinary plants. Others, like Viburnum tinus, have flowers that open late in the year and provide nectar for insects when there is not much else available. I always try to choose plants that fulfil numerous functions. It isn’t enough just to have a pretty flower, or a lovely looking leaf.
Seed Heads and Bark
Structure in the winter months also comes from seed heads and bark. My globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus), a favourite plant of mine, continues to add interest even after the flower spikes have died and the leaves have shrivelled. Once the foliage dies back I leave the tall seed heads standing. The large, rounded shapes add structure to the garden when not much else is going on. Dead seed heads and stalks also provide habitat for all sorts of insects and can be a food source for insects, birds and countless other organisms.
So even though it may seem that the garden is going to sleep, she never really does. Nature’s rhythms change throughout the year, but never stop. There is always something happening. And it’s important for us to do what we can to support these changes and cycles. To use our gardens to create a safe and calming space not only for us and our families, but also for our garden wildlife.
A well-planned planting scheme means that even in the darkest days you’ll be able to take solace from your garden. By introducing a wide range of plants with different habits and points of interest you’ll increase not only the biodiversity in your garden, but will also increase the visual interest. A garden is so much more than flowers. Think about the textures and shapes which present themselves through foliage, bark, seed heads and overall form. Also look out for plants that add value for wildlife and that can be used by us too.
Some Plant Suggestions
The list of plants for adding interest to a garden in the darker months is extensive. Some of my go-to plants are listed below:
The herb that keeps on giving. An invaluable plant not only for its evergreen, bushy foliage and early blue flowers in spring, but also because it can be harvested all year round for use in the kitchen. It's also a useful medicinal plant. A simple tea made from fresh rosemary leaves is packed with antioxidants and is good for memory and brain function.
Bay laurel can be grown as a tree, a large shrub, or kept pruned into neat topiary shapes. It’s often sold in lollipop form or as a sculpted pyramid or sphere. The dark green, evergreen foliage, hardiness and versatility of this sun loving plant means that it can be incorporated into all manner of planting schemes. It’s also a great shrub for birds to take cover in – they seem to enjoy hiding away in the dense foliage.
Mahonia’s have a bad reputation for being overused in supermarket carparks. Most cultivars of this evergreen shrub are a little too big for a normal sized garden, with the spikey foliage making them difficult to manage. This particular, compact variety, with soft and feathery leaves is the perfect shrub to add colour, interest and scent to the winter garden. The bright yellow flowers smell amazing and come into flower in Autumn when there is little other colour. They also provide a source of nectar to insects when food is scarce.
This is possibly my favourite grass. The gorgeous, fluffy evergreen foliage, with hints of red and golden yellow fill out a border and complement a huge variety of other grasses and herbaceous plants. Even though this grass is relatively short lived (it has a life span of about 5 to 6 years) and even though it quite happily seeds itself about, I wouldn’t be without it.
This gorgeous little native wildflower is so useful in a garden for keeping weeds at bay. I use it as a ground cover plant in the majority of my planting schemes. The dark green foliage and pretty blue flowers create a lovely carpet through which other plants can grow. The flowers are also loved by our pollinating insects. Try Ajuga reptans 'Black Scallop' for it's dark purple foliage.
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