EARLY SPRING & WINTER BLOOMERS | Bye bye dreary days
Who needs early bloomers when you look out the window right now? That's what you would have heard me say last week. Up until then, our world wasn't the muddy sludgy brown mess it is right now, left behind by melted snow. Instead, it was swaddled in a thick and beautiful white blanket. Every noise muffled and the (few) persistent colours popping brilliantly against their white canvas. At least, that's how it was down here in the South of Germany.
Of course, things were even better in the good old days. Back then – as ancient myth has it – winters were ‘proper’ winters, with snow that didn’t melt into mush after a mere day or two. It hid all the mud, dried patchy grass and rotten leaves – basically all the stuff you'd rather not see in your garden at this time of year – beneath its thick coat. And it would stick around stubbornly for a good while, until January or even February. What a joy to see the first brave snowdrops poke their little heads through that blanket of snow, announcing the arrival of spring!
Does that mean white winter gardens are a thing of the past?
Let's start things off on a personal note. As much as I adore flowers, gardens, spring, summer and all that kind of stuff, I still believe that winter, with all its attributes (some of which aren't especially charming, right?), has its place. It may not be the most elegant of seasons, but I need it, I love it, and I wouldn't want to be without it. If nothing else, it's a great excuse to sit on your sofa without feeling guilty. And without winter, I wouldn't get to feel this deep longing for spring.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean I don’t like to add a few flowering friends here and there to spruce up the pre-spring months. Quite the opposite!
The Japanese anemone may not flower in the winter, but her seed heads
are oh-so-very-pretty in the wintery garden.
Because, what do you know, there are some hardy (could they even be called feisty?) plants that have actually picked this time of year to bloom at their prettiest. Do you think they knew we’d need a little cheerfulness? And they’re not just lovely to look at, they also have another big benefit: they provide a vital food source for those insects that are still making the rounds, either in late autumn or very early on in the year (which is becoming increasingly common as temperatures rise globally). Tadah! These are my suggestions for plants that will bring flowers and colour to your garden, even in winter:
Christmas Rose, also known as Black Hellebore
Her main flowering period is from December to March. She produces white flowers with lots of yellow stamen in the centre and the large, long leaves stay green all year round. The Christmas rose grows to between 10 and 30 centimetres tall (4" to 12") and thrives in nutrient-rich, porous soil with as little waterlogging as possible. Partial shade is ideal because you want to protect her from getting too warm in the summer. Otherwise, this frost-hardy little lady is pretty undemanding. She’s happy by herself and you can even grow her in pots on a balcony. Oh, hello, endless opportunities! No need to prune her, but you can remove any wilted leaves if you like.
From January/February, she’s pure delight. She has a wider colour range than her cousin above: there's dark red and black, as well as white, blush and pink. Unlike the Christmas rose, her flowers nod and face outwards. She can reach heights of up to 50 centimetres (20") and is just as undemanding in terms of care and location as the Christmas rose. Mine are growing happily in full shade.
Viburnum x bodnantense
This shrub can grow to heights of up to three meters (10 ft)! Green in the summer, it’s one of those plants that seems to announce the end of winter a little early (I’ve had one flowering right around the corner since January). The soft pink, fantastically fragranced flowers add the first few flecks of beautiful colour to an otherwise bare winter garden. It’s very easygoing and thrives practically anywhere – it does prefer a bit of shelter from the wind, though.
Winter jasmine produces yellow flowers – usually not exactly my favourite colour, but in early spring, I'm all for it. Winter jasmine is pretty versatile because you can plant it either as a shrub or a climbing plant against a trellis. In summer, it has green leaves, but these shed in the autumn and are replaced with yellow flowers from January through to April. Just like its other winter-blooming friends, it's undemanding in terms of soil and location. It does, however, prefer not to be exposed to icy winds. You can also grow it in a tub on a balcony – perfect!
Again, this one's yellow, but it's also available in orange and red. Witch hazel produces elongated flowers that look like thick pieces of thread. They'll usually add a touch of light to your dark garden from around December/January. Originally native to North America and East Asia, witch hazel is green in the summer and you can grow it as a shrub or a small tree. This garden companion is quite demanding when it comes to soil, though: it can't be too clayey or too dry and it must be rich in nutrients, meaning it needs to be well fertilized in the spring. Pruning isn't necessary. It also prefers to be protected from easterly winds and, in return, it will offer a nice early source of food for the bees in your garden. And we do like to keep the bees happy, don't we?
I'm pretty sure everybody will recognize this one: heath is virtually indestructible. And I mean that! Even my friend, who once spectacularly murdered *all* her holidaying neighbour's house plants, can do no wrong with Erica. Some people are immediately reminded of cemeteries whenever they look at it, but don't let that make you lose sight of the fact that it produces purple and white flowers all winter long. A small heather shrub can grow to up to approx. 30cm (12") tall. It's a completely straightforward plant and it also looks gorgeous in pots, adding a spot of colour to gardens, windowsills and balconies.
Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis'
This one is a natural marvel – a proper cherry tree that thrives at mild temperatures and surprises you with a sea of light pink flowers in the middle of winter. Just look how pretty it is! Once you've got one in your garden, you also don't need to do a lot to it. Win-win. On a totally random side note: I’m never quite sure where win-win sits on the expression scale. Is it ok? Really annoying? I might need to run an Instagram poll.
Snowdrops and crocuses
That's it then, really. The end of winter. The moment the first snowdrops poke their little heads through the barren earth. Both of these grow from bulbs that you'll (hopefully) have planted back in the autumn. If you can hold off mowing your lawn until the leaves have fully wilted (the bulbs absorb the most precious nutrients that way), you'll be delighted with new flowers year after year.
Snowdrops love a shady location and nutrient-rich soil. Crocuses closely follow your snowdrops from February onwards and introduce bright pops of colour to your garden. They’re not as picky when it comes to the soil, though. And: the two merry beauties also provide an important food source for the insects in your garden.
Photo 2: Andreas Johansson
And lastly, bear in mind that it isn't just flowers that have the power to brighten up your winter months. Rose hips, crab apples and other berries all offer a pop of colour during the coldest time of the year and provide animals with a source of food.