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What to plant in winter: the best low-maintenance options to keep even lazy gardeners' outside spaces looking good all year

Get through winter with a stylish garden packed with colourful perennials, grasses and elegant evergreens.

By
24 December 2020
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utumn is well into its stride but your garden needn't lose its mojo, even if you've lost the green-fingered enthusiasm picked up in the first lockdown when the sun was shining and all that free time was a novelty.

Winter gardens can be full of elegant, arching grasses, dramatic seedheads, crisp evergreens and even flowers to lift your soul on the darkest days.

The tradition used to be to hoik out summer bedding plants around now and replace them with winter pansies or bare-root wallflowers. However, today's Londoners want perennials that stay put for years, changing gracefully with the seasons, perfect for the time-poor or downright lazy. Even in winter they can be beautiful, if you choose the right ones.

A garden in Putney Heath designed by Lucy Willcox is a lovely example of how plants can carry a garden into winter in style. Wrapped around a bungalow with plenty of glazing, the garden is on view from every room of the house, making it particularly important that it looks good all year round. "This garden goes through such a succession throughout the year," says Willcox.

"I gave it a really good backbone of evergreens, with euphorbias, box cubes, ferns and plenty of grasses, and then planted lots of bulbs like crocuses, tulips and alliums to poke up through it. The clients love it because they get a real sense of the changing seasons."

Here are the five plants for the ultimate hassle-free garden to see you through from autumn to spring.

Ornamental grasses

Ornamental grasses are at their best in autumn with their plumes of feathery flowerheads and narrow leaves that rustle in the breeze.

Even in the depths of winter they have a handsome presence. "Grasses are so good in winter because the sun is low," says Willcox. "If you plant them with the sun behind they are backlit and the effect is beautiful, like when the light comes in through a church window.'

She used large areas of low-growing evergreen moor grass (sesleria autumnalis), switch grass (panicum) and pheasant's tail grass (anemanthele lessoniana) to create mini oceans that swirl around the central boardwalk.

Drama comes from the much bigger Chinese silver grass (miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus) that turns toasty brown in winter with tall seedheads. All are simply cut to the ground in late winter so they can sprout new green leaves all over again.

Evergreens

Without evergreens, a garden can go into a slump in winter. Crisp spheres and blocks of box or yew make great foils for swishy grasses and dried seedheads.

Willcox uses clumps of euphorbia martini and mellifera and box cubes.

The evergreen male shield fern (dryopteris affinis Cristata the King) is planted en masse. Its intricate leaves are very beautiful when frosted in winter. Hebes are "power-pruned" into neat mounds under the weeping cherry tree.

Seedheads and stems

If a flower goes to seed gracefully it's always worth leaving it over winter. Seedheads can look great in frost or snow or when the light hits them, and they'll bring in finches.

Here, large swathes of persicaria (amplexicaulis Firetail) and giant hyssop (agastache Blackadder) bloom their hearts out all summer into autumn, then fade to perky drumsticks.

Sedum (hytolephium Matrona) enlivens autumn borders with pink flowerheads, then ages to a delectable caramel.

Hellebores

Hellebores are great city plants, flowering as early as December right through to spring in fashionably bruised tones of faded pink, creams, purplish-greens or deep, warming burgundy, always stylish never brash.

Willcox says: "For planting in the ground I always use white ones. They give such a punch of joy and look good against the grasses. Because hellebore flowers tend to hang down, the darker-coloured ones can get lost in the border, but the white ones stand out, especially if you plant them in front of something darker."

What to plant in containers

For good-looking window boxes and pots all year you often need to do a seasonal edit, and this is a good time.

For a classic, chic winter container you can't go wrong with heather — obviously steering clear of those spray-painted versions — evergreen ferns and cyclamen.

Add trailing ivy or lamium Beacon Silver for swag, and hellebores for drama. If this sounds too tame, team shocking pink ornamental cabbages with the extraordinary silver-leaved calocephalus, a barbed-wire ball in plant form.

Whatever pot you have, muhlenbeckia complexa plus hellebores is a gold-star, on-trend combination.

Lucy Willcox is at lucywillcoxgardendesign.com; follow her on Instagram @lucywillcox