The best way to make sure that the winter garden looks good is to work in layers from the bottom up. Start off with small plants that hug the ground, then make sure you have interesting shapes in beds and borders over the winter months, before moving on to topiary, trees, conifers, and artificial shapes.
Winter bulbs. Many people think that the only bulbs worth planting are those that flower in spring, yet there are some sensational ones for the winter. These will brighten up a woodland garden or a patch of ground beneath a deciduous tree. This is an ideal place for planting because the bare branches mean that bright light reaches the ground in winter, when the bulbs need it most.
The trees are also dormant now, taking up less moisture from the ground. Conversely, in summer, when the bulbs are taking a rest and not needing too much moisture, the trees are in full growth. The few make a perfect combination.
Winter aconite with snowdrops
The pick of the bulbs includes Cyclamen coum, Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) and Galanthus (snowdrop). Cyclamen should be planted in big, bold groups for the best effect. Because they are so small, just 2-3 in high, a single plant can easily get lost, but together their beautifully patterned leaves really stand out. Some are completely green and some have silver marbling. Their shapes vary from round to kidney-shaped. In the wild they grow in shady mountain sites, invariably with good drainage, and the two key qualities they need in the garden are summer shade and gritty, free-draining soil. In the right conditions just a few plants will eventually create a wonderful spread.
Winter aconites also do best in open areas under deciduous trees as long as they are well watered (it is vital that they do not bake in the summer). In a mild winter they might start flowering quite early, but generally it takes a good while before the flashy spreads of bright yellow flowers appear. The latter open only in full sun and will not perform in the shade, so do not hide them away. In very bad winters they might not flower until the first days of spring, but the wait is well worth it, especially after a couple of years of planting when they have self-seeded and created an eye-catching show.
Snowdrops are equally showy. There are many kinds with minuscule differences. Choose a sturdy, strong growing cultivar, such as the scented ‘S.Arnott’ or ‘Atkinsii’. They need winter moisture and summer shade so that they do not bake. They soon spread, making great swathes of white. Some make lovely cut flowers for any indoor display.