What are the best shrubs for winter interest in your garden?

In winter your garden can change dramatically when all the herbaceous plants and leaves have fallen from the trees. Boundary fences and sheds reappear and your garden becomes more open. This is the time to re-evaluate your garden and think about the best shrubs to add structure. It is important that you use evergreens in the right places to soften obscure unsightly areas. The important thing to think about is layering and evergreens play an important role in doing this.

When choosing evergreen shrubs to distract your eye from sheds or overlooking neighbours, choose plants with a soft outline rather than a formal one to avoid doing the opposite and drawing your eye to what you are trying to hide.

The general rule is bigger leaf plants (eg: Fatsia Japonica) attract attention while smaller leaf specimens (such as Viburnum tinus) recedes and blurs sight lines. Leave enough room for the shrub of your choice to be appreciated in its own right. For example Hamamelis or Cornus against dark foliage looks wonderful.

Flowers in winter are fantastic and should be positioned so that they can be enjoyed from inside the house. Many of the best shrubs also provide wonderful scent and these should be planted close to the front or back door so you appreciate the perfume as you go in and out of your house.
Here are some of my favourites:

  1. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (Christmas/Sweet Box): lovely foliage and highly scented flowers from December to February followed by glossy black berries, happiest in semi shade and can tolerate dry conditions under trees, this variety only grows to H1mxW1m. Happy to be clipped like box after flowering.Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis
  2. Lonicera fragrantissima (Winter Honeysuckle) wonderful fragrant, creamy-white flowers among bare branches between December and March, grow in full sun or partial shade in moist well drained soil, will grow to H2.5mx W3m
  3. Lonicera fragrantissimaHamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’( Witch Hazel) has a heavenly smell and primrose pale flowers. Witch hazels prefer acid soil, although they can manage on a neutral one, provided the soil does not get too dry in summer. They are best in a sunny place and do not like to be too wet in winter They are shallow rooting, so be very careful not to plant anything too close to the main stem. This also has beautiful autumn colour. H3m x W3MHamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida
  4. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ has brilliant, flame-coloured stems that are revealed when the leaves, which turn orange-yellow in autumn, fall to the ground. Looks wonderful when planted in front of a dark background, H1.5 x W.8m
  5. Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'Mahonia japonica: the flowers smell of Lilly of the Valley and in very cold spells the leaves turn a bright red colour. Mahonia’s are woodland plants that crave shade and will tolerate only a little sun, so are good for dull corners and are not too fussy about soil conditions. The only thing they do not enjoy is a boggy place. Do not be afraid to prune them hard after flowering, or they will get leggy and ugly. H2m x S3m

Mahonia japonica

I am a qualified garden designer with a keen interest in contemporary, natural and traditional gardens. You can find me on Twitter or like my Facebook page  where you will find lots of tips related to gardening.

4 Responses to What are the best shrubs for winter interest in your garden?

  1. Millie 13 February 2015 at 5:51 pm #

    Thank you for some really good suggestions for making my garden more interesting during the winter!
    Can you recommend any plants that will tolerate poorly drained soil during the winter months?

    • Nicky Corkerton 17 February 2015 at 10:39 am #

      Hi Millie
      Thank you for your nice comment, that is a very good question. What I would recommend is Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ which has wonderful red stems in the winter. Another good shrub in these conditions is Salix purpurea ‘ Nancy Saunders’ having maroon stems during the winter and delicate blue-grey foliage that appear in spring with silver-grey cartkins. They can both be prunned at the same time to keep the stem colour .

  2. Sue Bolsover 13 February 2015 at 5:59 pm #

    There are some lovely ideas here, as I have a pretty ugly fence which is very open in the Winter and I want to soften it and draw the eye away from it and towards some interesting plants.
    Thanks for the useful tips!

  3. později 19 May 2015 at 10:38 am #

    Keep on working, great job!