In the garden with the team from Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

PUBLISHED: 16:54 17 December 2013 | UPDATED: 16:56 17 December 2013




Sir Harold Hillier Gardens is managed and operated by Hampshire County Council. For more information on the gardens visit

Colourful Combinations

The bright colours of summer may be long gone and even the autumnal tones have faded, but there are still many plants that make stunning winter combinations with a more limited colour palette.

The flaking, peeling bark of the Himalayan Silver Birch, Betula albosinensis ‘Fascination’ is stunning, giving a contrast of glowing white trunk and chocolate brown flaking bark.

Although the birch is a deciduous tree, it can be brought to life even more in winter by growing the winter flowering clematis, Clemais cirrhosa ‘Freckles’, through the branches. The creamy white, bell-like flowers are heavily patterned with violet spots.

Mulch around the base of your birch with a dark bark mulch and plant this with a good helping of Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose.

There are now many new varieties of this early flowering hellebore, including some with long lasting, silver foliage which prolongs the season.

All of which makes for a stunning winter interest display.

Magical Mahonias

The list of plants with good flower power in winter is generally quite short, but one particular group has to be at the top, especially when it comes to brightness and longevity of flower.

The Mahonia, although not new to many gardeners, has more range than many would realise. The common name ‘Oregon Grape’ has traditionally been given to this group of shrubs, but is really meant for a specific species, M. aquifolium native to North America, which is cultivated for its edible fruits. Mahonia aquifolium has, possibly, the widest range of varieties of any Mahonia and these are not only known for their short, bold, spikes of yellow flowers in late winter and spring, but also for their glossy, deep green foliage that can take on stunning autumnal tones. This species also makes an excellent ground cover and being evergreen and almost indestructible, means this generally short growing species is ideal for covering an unsightly spot where perhaps little else grows.

M.aquifolium ‘Cosmo Crawl’ is one of my favourites! A very prostrate growing form with short, plump flower spikes and superb autumn colour. Reasonably new to wide cultivation is the species M. nitens; a small to medium sized evergreen shrub that flowers from autumn to mid-winter. A variety known as ‘Cabaret’ is most often seen in Garden Centres and is a strong flowerer. Last but not least, is a dwarf plant suited to any size of garden, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’. The fern-like leaves with thin narrow leaflets are stunning by themselves, but then come the long spikes of delicate, lemon coloured flowers.

This variety is a delight and is happy in sun or even in a more shady spot. This is truly a group of plants to consider not just for winter, but all year round too.

Actions for December

Tidy up you boundaries! Deciduous hedges can be pruned at this time of year, but avoid pruning evergreens as these are susceptible to frost when cut.

Many types of fruit trees can be trained while they are dormant, especially apples and pears.

Now is the time to plant trees and shrubs. Prepare your planting hole well, make sure that your plants are not put in too deep. A good mulch around the base will retain moisture and keep down initial spring weeds.

Many shrubs can be propagated now from hardwood cuttings. Take tip cuttings of between 6 and 12 inches and insert into prepared beds or pots. Hardwood cuttings normally root over the winter months and are ready to pot in the spring.

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