Unveiling the beautiful Hellebore

Hellebores are stunning plants. I have pointed this out before, I know, but want to remind you that it really is worth braving the cold to trim back the old Hellebore leaves to reveal the unfolding flowers. Here is the ‘before’ example in a client’s garden this week:


Then 5 minutes later after some careful snipping:


See what is revealed! Not only are hellebores beautiful in cream’s, yellows, pinks, purples and blacks but they also provide nectar for early foraging insects. So everyone is happy. Some varieties do tend to droop their heads so we miss the beautiful markings within the flower, but planting them in a raised bed or container means we can see their beauty more easily.


Surreal Snowdrops

Spotting the first snowdrop opening its nodding head amidst the wintery weather of late January or early February is always a landmark in the turning year for me. I know we are on the first stage of an inevitable journey towards the riches of spring and summer. So each year I try to visit a different garden which specialises in Snowdrops, to celebrate their brief glory. This year it was the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. There were lots of beautiful varieties of Snowdrops threading through the borders, under shrubs and trees, in the shady conditions they love.IMG_0336But someone on the staff had also come up with a rather more unique way of displaying the tiny flowers, so we could look right up into the pretty bells. Hanging like christmas baubles from one of the trees by the entrance to the garden were snowdrop spheres, covered in moss and twisting gently in the breeze.


Great fun for children…and adults too actually!


My grandson was intrigued! We were also impressed by the novel (I use that word intentionally!) ‘bug hotels’ that were hanging from another tree.IMG_0341

The roof was made from an old gardening book covered in plastic, with lots of canes slotted below to give ladybirds, solitary bees and other beneficial mini-beasts a place to see out the winter.As an ex-librarian this appealed to both the literary and the horticultural aspects of my nature! I am going to search for a battered copy of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s ‘Secret Garden’ and make one myself next winter. Chelsea Physic is a real ‘secret garden’ of London, tucked away behind  old brick walls in Chelsea, full of interesting treasures whatever the time of year.

Bright winter Gardens

Not many people go out of their way to create a Winter border when they are designing their gardens. We tend to forget in the midst of summer’s profusion that the winter months can still be interesting in the garden, even if only viewed from the house. Here are some ideas to brighten your borders in winter.

BARK & STEMS- include some trees or shrubs with interesting bark in the garden.

4-91A8B3C9-1274817-480 4-B2B44238-1824825-480 4-97A56DE3-1174327-480These are all varieties of Birch growing in a beautiful place in Devon on the northern edge of Datmoor called Stone Lane Gardens. This gardens holds the National collection of Birches developed over 40 years, and sells unusual varieties that you would not find elsewhere by mail order. A magical place, and venue for workshops and garden sculpture exhibitions each summer.

Try including shrubs with bright winter stems too such as red or yellow Cornus or the ghostly, silvery Rubus cockburnianus.DSC_0007

DSC_0017Try planting these in a spot that will catch the low winter sun which really helps them glow more brightly.

FOLIAGE – Evergreen foliage gives structure to the winter garden and if it is brightly coloured it will give a zing to your winter borders. Variegated Holly, and golden Conifers are traditional evergreens worth considering, but if you have a sheltered spot then Phormiums with variegated leaves can make impressive focal points.


BERRIES – give great flashes of colour and provide food for birds.

imagesThis is Cotoneaster fridgidus ‘Cornubia’ in early winter. Including a rose which has lovely hips after the flowers fade means you get two season’s pleasure for the price of one.

rosehiptrailmix-featuredimageFLOWERS – Flowers blooming in the depths of winter is not an impossibility! This Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ will flower on and off through the winter in milder spells.

Prunus-subhirtella-Autumnalis-RoseaHelllebores start to flower in late winter and provide early nectar for bees. Helleborus orientalis ‘Pink Lady’ is stunning.

helleborus pink lady

SCENT – Don’t forget to add some scented beauties to your winter border, or underestimate the power of scent to carry on a still day in winter. I have a Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ by my front door, under the verandah, which begins to flower in mid January. The scent is deliciously sweet and heavy and cut stems will perfume the house for days.


Sarcoccoca (Winter Box) has tiny, unremarkable flowers but the scent is amazingly strong especially when planted en masse. Viburnum farreri has clusters of pretty flowers which start to open in autumn and carries on through the winter.


So next time you are revamping your garden don’t let spring and summer’s riches dazzle you into forgetting to squeeze in some colour, form and scent for winter in a special corner!

Cornish inspiration

One way to shorten a long winter is to head south to Cornwall in early March. Around the south coast the milder winter temperatures means that you will find garden and wild plants in sheltered spots that are weeks ahead of those further north. We did this last year staying in a lovely bolt hole for two on the Rame peninsula just the Cornwall side of the Tamar. Wier cottage was right beside the river estuary and had an enchanting garden at the front.DSC_0032DSC_0030I loved the path created from an informal mix of slate and cobbles.DSC_0027And the bulbs planted on top of the wall.

I had read about Cornwall’s daffodil farms but had never seen them. We found this field on the peninsula.DSC_0067DSC_0066It really took my breath away.

Even in March there were gardens to visit. Large ones like Cotehele

DSC_0009DSC_0011which is an exceptionally atmospheric Tudor house owned by the National Trust. We also visited Ince Castle which was open for the NGS. It faces south on the River Lynher in a very special position and is a private house surrounded by fabulous formal and woodland gardens. Camellias and Magnolias flowering everywhere DSC_0040 and quirky features to catch the imagination.DSC_0058


including a porthole window in the wall to view the river and an intricate shell grotto.

Walks along the coast also revealed natural inspirationDSC_0018 DSC_0015I love cornish hedges which are natural stone boundaries infilled with earth and capped with turf. Plants can seed themselves  between the stones and a fabulous living boundary is created. DSC_0019 DSC_0019

Wanders through lovely villages such as Noss Mayo (back over the border in Devon) and Kingsand also provided design inspiration DSC_0016 DSC_0010 DSC_0013

I can’t think of a better place for a pint than The ship Inn at Noss Mayo at the end of a long, blustery walk along the coast and the pub has some impressive carpentry in the riverside garden. Is it a seat or a wall!!DSC_0017

Detailing of the lighting also excellent.DSC_0014 DSC_0015Love the workmanship here and eye for detail.

Seasonally stunning shrubs

SL271222In recent years the trend has been much more towards ‘naturalistic’ borders, with an emphasis on perennials and grasses mingled together in a very informal way. The contemporary style of planting above is outside the restaurant at Cambridge Botanic Gardens. Here plants are mingled together in a matrix in much the same way that they might grow together in a meadow. The Oudolf Field in Somerset, that I described in an earlier post, is another example of this with not a shrub to be seen anywhere. As beautiful and atmospheric as this style of planting is, it will not be suitable for every garden situation and works better, I think, in larger spaces.

Last autumn I attended a couple of courses held by Thornhayes Nursery deep in the lovely east Devon countryside near Cullompton. They are specialist growers of trees and shrubs and a visit to the nursery and the surrounding orchards and aboretum is a real treat. Kevin Croucher who owns the nursery and runs the courses is hugely knowledgeable and I spent my time soaking up so much useful information about establishment and formative pruning of trees and shrubs. I also discovered some gorgeous shrubs that I had not encountered before, and decided then and there we are due a revival of the mixed border. Layers of planting can be built up beneath and between deciduous and evergreen shrubs, giving interest right through the year starting with Snowdrops in January, through spring and summer perennials to lovely autumn leaf and berry colour. In winter evergreen shrubs will give interest and structure.

Client’s mixed borders reshaped and revitalised in 2013 and framed by a new pergola

The following are some very special shrubs that certainly have their peak season but also keep the interest going at other times.


DSC_0018This is it in its full glory in April in my garden. Then juicy black berries form and we have a couple of weeks of amazing antics from the Blackbirds as they perform acrobatics, hanging on the end of the thin branches and feasting on the berries which they find irresistible. In the autumn the leaves turn fiery red and orange. It is a suckering shrub but I have not found this a problem in my garden. Seems to tolerate wet or dry soil.

SALIX PURPUREA ‘Nancy saunders’

1131_0_Salix-purpurea-Nancy-Saunders-Purpurweide-Nancy-SaundersThis is one I met for the first time at Thornhayes. Quite delicate and shrubby with lovely leaves which open purple/pink and turn blue/grey with contrasting red stems. Good in damp soil.


A rare, purple-leaved form of our native blackthorn, Prunus spinosa ‘Purpurea’ has leaves which are an attractive bronze/purple-green colour. In spring these colourful leaves make an excellent backdrop for masses of pretty, small, pale pinkish-white flowers.


e_planipes_050910This striking Asian shrub was looking stunning in September with gorgeous pink/red fruits, and as they autumn progresses the leaves will take on rich autumn colours. It will grow to around 4m x 4m in 10 years so needs some space around it though can be reduced in size by pruning.



In January, the first thing you will experience is the gorgeous sweet scent of this shrubby Honeysuckle. On a mild, still day it will carry far and wide. I met it for the first time in the wonderful winter garden at the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden.  (The garden deserves a post all to itself!) Depending on the weather it can flower from early December to April. Best to plant it in a sheltered spot to protect the flowers and contain the scent, but does not mind a sunless aspect.