7 of the best architectural plants to add structure to your winter garden
As winter sets in, now’s the time to admire structural plants that can provide a framework or focal point for beds and borders in the cooler months.
It could be a spooky corkscrew hazel, with its twisting, spiralling branches, or some vibrant dogwood stems whose brilliant red and yellow hues provide a flash of colour, or a Christmas box; its clusters of small perfumed white flowers fill the air in winter.
Here are some of the plants that can add structure and form to your garden…
1. Corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’)
This slightly spooky shrub has bare twisting stems in winter and can make a terrific focal point in a pot on your patio. Come February or March, it bears golden yellow catkins. It’s best placed in a sunny spot, where its bizarre silhouette can be enjoyed, and its stems can also be used to great effect in winter flower arrangements.
2. Christmas box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna)
The spidery pink-white flowers may look insignificant, but once you catch their delicious perfume you will be hooked. Sarcococcas – which provide year-round glossy green foliage – are good stalwart evergreens that develop into dense, upright shrubs. Plant them near doorways or along paths to make the most of their rich fragrance, or place them as ground cover at the front of a border. S. confusa is a smaller type, growing to just 60cm (2ft), but all like shady spots.
3. Teasels (Dipsacus fullonum)
Don’t forget seed heads provide great architecture in the winter garden and teasels – a cottage garden favourite with spiny purple summer flowerheads – are just as interesting in winter, as their conical seed heads provide accents at the back of the border. They are also a magnet for bees and other beneficial insects.
Ornamental grasses en masse can look sublime when the frost catches them and makes them shimmer. Not only do miscanthus provide a feathery focal point, but their airy, arching plumes can turn to silver in the winter, casting a frosty elegance on the garden, while their clump-forming habit can be achieved whatever size of plot you have, whether you go for dwarf varieties or giants reaching more than 8ft.
5. Dogwood (Cornus)
Brilliant red, yellow and orange stems emerge in the coldest months from dogwoods such as Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’. The interest begins in autumn when its leaves are flushed with pinky-orange before falling to reveal the colourful stems. To ensure those stems remain a vibrant colour, cut established plants down to within 10cm of the ground in March.
6. Perennial flowers
Don’t dismiss the spent flowers of perennials in the winter garden, which can provide structure and movement to the scene. Hydrangea flowers, for instance, may fade to brown but do keep their form for much of the winter and provide emerging buds with some protection in early spring.
Rudbeckia laciniata’s bright yellow flowers leave just their black centres for all to admire in the winter, especially when silhouetted against the winter sun. They provide a chocolatey contrast when paired with lighter coloured grasses.
So, I know some gardeners can’t stand bamboo, with its creeping rhizomes invading everything in its wake, but if you put it in a pot, you can enjoy some terrific colour and form during the winter months and it will provide you with some welcome shade in summer. Phyllostachys nigra is among the best for dramatic black stem colour, while its elegant, graceful canes can grow up to 3m (10ft) tall. Bamboos often look their best near water, where the reflection shows off their vertical structure.
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