The best plants to brighten up grey days with a shot of colour

Stephen Lacey
Camellia x williamsii 'Bow Bells' - gapphotos.com

Good riddance to a grim winter. But although the daffodils are up and the blackbirds are gurgling, I don’t want to forget it quite yet. My view from the kitchen window – over paving and dormant beds to a pond and shrubs beyond – is pleasant enough in a dynamic winter of sun, rain, frost and cloud. But through sodden, grey week after sodden, grey week, it hasn’t really been cutting the mustard.

So I am on a mission to add some game-changing shots of colour quickly, before I am floated away on the spring tide. My first port of call for inspiration has been to Wisley, where I had a rummage for early camellias.

Under the Scots pine in the corner of my kitchen-view garden, I already have a young plant of ‘Saint Ewe’. Because the ground is rooty, it lives in a half-barrel – containers are a good way of sidestepping the problem of dry shade.

It has been out since early February and its single flowers of deep pink are cheery against the grey sky and nearby catkins of garrya. Another pink one across the pond would perk up the scene yet more. I found several candidates, both on Wisley’s Battleston Hill and below the rock garden, and ‘Bow Bells’ is my winner.

I take Kew with a pinch of salt, as it is much milder than here. Would Edgeworthia chrysantha, with its scrumptiously scented yellow clusters of flower, ever make a fat shrub for me? It might be worth a go if I could ever find a sheltered, south-facing spot for it. But it was towards a more pedestrian plant that I gravitated – yellow-stemmed willow, grown as a coppiced shrub by a lake. I wouldn’t mind taking the mandarin ducks along with it.

The clustering of red, orange and yellow willows and dogwoods, such as you see in many “winter gardens”, is too cartoonlike for me. But a solitary stand of yellow glowing through the gloom, as at Kew, would be just the ticket – fast-growing too – and on my way back north I stopped at Ashwood Nurseries to scoop up one called ‘Golden Ness’. It is already installed by the pond, and by next year it will have a drift of ‘February Gold’ daffs around its amber stems.

Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill' - John Glover / Alamy

Talking of daffodils, I have made a note to have more ‘Cragford’ next year. This white, orange-centred narcissus (with a delicious scent) has been flowering in pots by my front steps since January, taking the storms in its stride. The potted crocus and little iris I have in my kitchen-view garden are pretty enough, but for impact ‘Cragford’ is the business.

My third garden visit has been to Borde Hill in Sussex. There is a chirpy winter grouping near the house, of pink Daphne bholua, lilac Rhododendron ‘Praecox’, plum hellebores and the mauve creeping toothwort Cardamine pentaphylla. I have been wondering about planting another Daphne bholua after seeing the new dark pink variety, ‘Mary Rose’, on Pan-Global Plants’s Instagram page; teaming it up with this rhododendron would be striking.

Borde Hill’s tree magnolias have also fired me up. Obviously, garden space and human longevity are against me when it comes to echoing their giant specimens of M. campbellii and M. sprengeri var. diva which are now filling the sky with clouds of pink waterlilies. But nowadays there are many selections available, bred to bloom young and stay compact – and with equally large flowers. As it happened, the magnolia expert Jim Gardiner was at Borde Hill while I was there, and I was able to corner him and ask which of all these mouth-watering choices he rated the best. Without hesitation, he named ‘Felix Jury’. My order has just gone off, and I must now urgently create room for it – I am not sure how.

If long grey, wet winters are to be the norm, they do not have to be endured with glum stoicism. Spark up the colour and pump out the scent. “Plan for winter. Spring looks after itself,” plantswoman Margery Fish once wrote – and if it wasn’t her it was someone else.