There’s no doubt about it, we are at the low point of the gardening calendar. Your garden may be looking drab at the moment, without much to entice you outside; but there are plenty of ways to lift the doom and gloom before the beginning of the new gardening year. Here are some to try.
An instant pleasure fix
We all need an instant fix on occasions, and placing a container full of stunning plants close to a main door, or in another strategic position, will help to carry you through until spring arrives. Your winter mix can stay in the same container for up to three years, after which point the plants can be added to your garden, so they offer good value. Visit a good garden centre, arm yourself with a trolley, and select one star plant as your linchpin. This star plant must look perfect, because it’s going to take centre stage.
Go with an open mind, because garden-centre stock ebbs and flows. You are likely to find a fabulous evergreen skimmia, with tight cones of buds waiting to open and spill their fragrance. The green and cream ‘Kew Green’ and ‘Kew White’ are both widely available. Or you may prefer the wine-red skimmia ‘Rubella’, or the red-berried ‘Reevesiana’. It doesn’t have to be a skimmia though; it can be any handsome shrub, such as a fragrant sarcococca or a hebe. Or, perhaps, a handsome perennial will catch your eye.
Once you’ve picked your star performer, assemble your supporting cast. A foot-wide container will need at least five or six cast members, because you don’t want to see any gaps. Use the trolley as your mix-and-match mood board, experimenting as you go. Push the pots together to assess whether they work or not; aim to create contrast, cadence and rhythm. Try to find a grass-like plant for shimmering movement.
If you’ve gone for a cream and green colour scheme, add the jade, fibre-optic Carex comans ‘Frosted Curls’. If you’ve opted for a sultry diva instead, the fine-tined C. comans bronze-leaved will add a curl of damp woodsmoke to the mix. Then look for a tumbler, to soften the edge: non-climbing English ivies (Hedera helix) are easy options.
To add some touches of rich velvet, there are several euphorbias bearing handsome winter rosettes of leaf. The sultry options are ‘Redstart’ and ‘Blackbird’, or there’s the cool, grey-green Euphorbia x martini. These evergreen euphorbias flower in early spring and their inconspicuous star-like flowers are surrounded by rounded, weather-resistant lime-green bracts for spring zing. Avoid their milky latex-like sap though: it will irritate eyes and skin.
You might add a heuchera, and there are so many to choose from. Pulmonarias are also excellent and I always love to see the verdigris-leaved ‘Diana Clare’ in winter, like a faded copper roof.
A wiry-stemmed epimedium is another option. ‘Spine Tingler’, grown for its jagged-edged, narrow foliage, is the holy grail. Hardy ferns, particularly polypodies and mossy polystichum, offer fascinating wintergreen fronds. When mist and fog descend, as they surely will, they’ll be jewelled by tiny raindrops. You should also consider non-dyed winter heathers, with pink or white flowers.
Shafts of hope
Elsewhere in the garden, there are plants that defy the elements and produce fresh flowers in November. If I had to pick one above all others, I’d go for a widely available mahonia, Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, an architectural evergreen with strong, splayed stems clothed in spiny foliage.
The main stems are topped by eight or nine radiating fingers of sweetly scented yellow flowers with a light lily-of-the-valley scent. This contrast between arching deep-green foliage and radiating mimosa-yellow flowers lights up the gloomiest November day, and the plant will perform in dappled shade.
Rarer forms of M. x media include ‘Lionel Fortescue’ and ‘Buckland’. Burncoose Nursery (burncoose.co.uk) has a good selection via mail order. These November-flowering mahonias should not be confused with the American summer-flowering species Mahonia aquifolium, also known as the Oregon grape. It is the stuff of supermarket car parks and roundabouts.
If prickly foliage puts you off, an alternative mahonia is the compact ‘Soft Caress’, the Plant of the Year at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2013. It’s a bee magnet in November.
The best November fragrance award must go to the commonly available Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. This is one of those stop-start plants that takes the opportunity to flower when warmer weather allows. However, the first flourish always occurs in November and these clusters of pink flowers pack a strong hyacinth scent that carries. It will repeat flower in flushes until March, and it is a large, upright shrub that can easily be accommodated on a garden boundary. It also picks well.
You might try Elaeagnus x submacrophylla, because the tiny tubular flowers are highly fragrant at this time of year. This evergreen needs a sheltered, well-drained position, but it does tolerate coastal locations. There are flashier variegated forms such as ‘Gilt Edge’ and ‘Gold Splash’, but I prefer the mealy silvered leaves of ‘Compacta’. They look as though they have been liberally dusted with icing sugar. The cinnamon-brown stems are another attraction.
The starry, yellow, winter jasmine Jasminum nudiflorum is an old cottage-garden plant traditionally clipped round doorways and gates. The fresh crop of olive-green stems, produced by a late-spring trim, are studded with yellow flowers from November until January. It will also flower on north walls, although the flowers may come later.
Plants for a warm wall or niche spots
Warmer walls and sheltered spots in southern or westerly positions encourage November flowers. I’m currently enjoying a winter-flowering clematis named C. cirrhosa var. purpurascens ‘Freckles’. The outer tepals are a mixture of silk, putty and cream; it’s only when you gaze upwards, into the ample bells, that you realise how heavily spotted they are with a strident pink-red. ‘Freckles’ was raised from Spanish-sourced seed by clematis guru Raymond Evison in the late 1980s, who named his choice selection after his eldest daughter Rebecca, because she had lots of freckles.
My ‘Freckles’ is scrambling through a bare tree peony and an ornamental spindle tree close to the house. It always provides me with a series of pendent Tiffany lamps in November. The later-flowering C. cirrhosa var. balearica flowers a month later. The dark, ferny foliage flatters a profusion of lightly spotted cream flowers. They’re not as large as ‘Freckles’, or as early, but you get far more. Only tidy these winter-flowering clematis after flowering, if you have to, and be aware that balearica can lose its leaves following a hot summer (it’s not dead, it’s just having a siesta).
On the ground
The perfect foot-hugger to plant at the base of your winter-flowering clematis is a winter-flowering iris named Iris unguicularis. It’s commonly called the Algerian winter iris, because it was originally introduced from Algeria in the 19th century by bulb collector and botanist Dean Herbert. It’s also found naturally in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. These are hot spots, compared with Britain, so this winter gem needs a south-facing position, ideally against a wall. The best form is the deep violet-blue ‘Mary Barnard’, named after the woman who collected it from Algeria in 1937. ‘Walter Butt’ is a ghostly soft-grey and ‘Abington Purple’ a deeper violet.
These winter-flowering irises produce a clump of fine foliage. They take time to mature and gastropods are very fond of the flowers and buds. They have a Jekyll and Hyde personality, because they always look scruffy at the end of summer. Tidy them then, so that they look pristine when the first flower or two appears in November. If you pick ‘Mary Barnard’ in bud, she will unfurl in minutes. ‘Abington Purple’ doesn’t perform this magic act, sadly. They will all carry on throwing up a few flowers throughout winter, before having a final flourish in March or April.
Nerine bowdenii, a hardy nerine from South Africa, also carries on into November and I am very fond of the strident pinks, which look positively electric in low light. ‘Pink Triumph’ is later to flower than most but it gives a burst of bright colour. They all resemble agapanthus in flower form.
Hesperantha coccinea ‘Sunrise’ also has a South African provenance, but this spire of saucer-like flowers loves summer moisture at the root. Mine are sulking following 2022’s dry conditions.
Bulbous plants for November flower
The round box balls close to my house drain the soil and offer shelter to several autumn performers. Cyclamen hederifolium, the ivy-leaved cyclamen is very hardy and long-lived and it combines flower and attractive foliage. Silvered forms mingle among the black strappy leaves of Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’.
I’m currently enjoying some autumn-flowering snowdrops, Galanthus elwesii ‘Barnes’, ‘Remember, Remember’ and ‘Autumn Magic’ are in full flow now. G. reginae-olgae ‘Tilebarn Jamie’ has been flowering for weeks and the buds of ‘Peter Gatehouse’ are almost open. Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’ is also in bud. They’re proof that the garden is still alive and well – despite the weather.