Window boxes return dazzle to a winter garden
There is more to life than winter-flowering pansies and cabbages. Cyclamen flowers until the spring bulbs appear
IT MAY seem a bit early to think about winter when the leaves are still turning, but that’s the thing with gardening — you have to look ahead. The geraniums are on their way out, and let’s face it, the garden is not at its best. All of which is a great excuse to head to Columbia Road or your favourite nursery for plants for your pots and window boxes. They can dazzle with colour and invention.
I am not talking about ornamental cabbages. An unofficial poll (okay, I phoned a few friends) reveals I may be alone in my resistance to the horror of brassicas in boxes but each to their own. I’m not even talking about winter pansies — where some see cheerful yellows, mauves and oranges, I see brittle, hunched stems and waterlogged petals.
For an elegant classic for window boxes and pots try evergreen ferns such as deer fern (Blechnum spicant), polypodium, or hart’s tongue (asplenium scolopendrium) interplanted with heathers — unsprayed, naturally — and cyclamen that will flower right through winter. If the heather’s dark flowered, try white cyclamen; if it’s pale pink or white, try darker pink or red cyclamen.
For more romance, replace the heather or cyclamen with large, nodding hellebores in white or dusky pink. Underplant the whole container with bulbs, lots of them, to pop up from February. Stunning, dainty blue Iris reticulata will emerge first. Crocus, daffodils, hyacinths, muscari and small tulips can follow.
If you need inspiration for winter container planting on a grand scale, make a diversion to Michelin-star restaurant Locanda Locatelli near Marble Arch. In the cricket pitch-length planter outside, landscape designer Declan Buckley dots narcissus Thalia and tulips Burgundy and Ballerina among evergreens in an awesome evocation of a woodland edge. snowdrops fill a pretty china teacup Against the hard, grey lines of the city it’s an uplifting example of how winter planting can be lush and exuberant, with hellebores, persicaria affinis Darjeeling Red and blue ajuga Catlin’s Giant providing structure and pops of colour above a carpet of ferns and other woodlanders. For a smaller container, says Buckley, you could reduce the combination to hellebores and ferns with lamium maculatum Beacon Silver to trail down the edges. Add cut red cornus stems — dogwood — from florists to add height and colour.
For designer and BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Nick Bailey, author of 365 Days of Colour in Your Garden, winter colour is not all about the flowers. He loves the muted silvery foliage of helleborus Silver Dollar for window boxes. “Another great textural foliage plant is calocephalus brownii which makes a fuzzy barbed-wire ball with really bright, sparkly foliage, so it’s a great backdrop when you plant pink cyclamens in front of it.” He also likes using hebes, Heartbreaker and Tricolour with magenta tips to their shoots. As an alternative trailer to the ubiquitous ivy, Bailey suggests trying the maidenhair vine (muehlenbeckia complexa) which has “a bouncy freshness to it”. It’s also the millennial plant of the moment so you can congratulate yourself for being in vogue.
Heucheras, with their orange, lime green, red and yellow leaves are far from wintry and, despite their delicate-looking foliage, entirely evergreen. Bailey’s favourite for containers is the fresh chartreuse Lime Marmalade to underpin bulbs such as early Kaufmanniana tulips which will start flowering in February, and muscari grape hyacinths a little later. If you want something a bit more muted, the pompom-like grassy festuca glauca makes a cool impact in winter, or the coppery sedge Carex oshimensis Evergold gives a warmer feel.
If you only have space, time or the will for a two- plant combination, what would work best? Festuca glauca with picotee-edge burgundy cyclamen, or Heuchera Peach Flambe, suggests Bailey. Or hellebores with muehlenbeckia. “For spots of colour I might add Dutch forced campanulas which will trail a bit.” Like Buckley, he also uses florists’ twigs in containers to liven things up. “White twigs can look amazing with evergreen silver foliage.”
Fuzzy barbed-wire balls, red stems and flaming heucheras… who needs painted heather?
For bulbs: jparkers.co.uk For heucheras: heucheraholics.co.uk For calocephalus brownii (also known as leucophyta): tropicalbritain. co.uk; gardeningexpress.co.uk
For window boxes: bayandbox.com