Winter gardening jobs: Make your garden ‘a year-round sanctuary’

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Gardens are to be enjoyed for 12 months of the year, and yet why is it that come winter we shut our doors, draw our curtains and pull the winter duvet over our outdoor spaces? With a little planning and some research, you can create a garden, balcony, patio or allotment that entices you out no matter the time of year. Just spending some time outside can improve our health and keep us stimulated, especially through the colder months. But December is also the perfect time to sit back and plan your year-round garden sanctuary.

Location is important within a garden setting when creating a new spot for year-round interest, unless, of course, you plan to change your whole garden.

If the area is in the shade for most of the day then shade-loving plants, such as ferns, Epimedium, Geranium, Hosta, Skimmia and Sarcococca will work best and think about light-coloured paving or gravel to brighten the area. If the area is in a sunny location then think about colour, but more importantly, think about watering.

Sunny locations while great for growth can mean additional watering, which is time-consuming. Better to opt for drought-tolerant plants such as Agapanthus, Achillea, Baptisia and Cistus.

There are many materials to choose from to create your outdoor sanctuary, and each one will give a different effect. Gravel comes in single colours or mixed colours, is relatively cheap to lay and also adds sound – every time you walk over the gravel the movement can be heard – perfect if you’re worried about thieves. By adding gravel as a mulch around plants, especially attractive in Mediterranean-style gardens the borders and pathway merge together. An alternative to gravel is resin-bound/-bonded aggregate which looks like gravel but doesn’t move. The resin holds the aggregate in place. Whether gravel or resin-bound, the surface provides good grip and traction.

Paving comes in different sizes and many colours and finishes. Warmer tones like sandstone, limestone and brick will create a cosy feel to an area during autumn and winter, whereas white porcelain may look too cold and clinical. However, during summer the paler porcelain will cool down an area and make a space feel brighter and lighter.

Adding height to a garden makes a statement, creates a focal point and can provide shelter. Arbours, archways, and pergolas in wood or metal give an instant effect. Covered arbours, awnings, brightly-coloured shade sails and parasols will help against the scorching sun in summer. Just remember to bring them indoors or take them to the shed for winter. Heavy rain and strong winds can quickly damage them.

Fences and walls are crying out for colour and texture. Think about painting them in a dark green, even black, to show off the wonderful plants and flowers in front, add trellis or wires and train climbers such as Clematis, Rosa and Tracehelospermum jasminoides. Vertical growing systems are now on the market, so every vertical space can be used to grow edibles, flowers, vegetables and herbs. By growing herbs, salads and other vegetables in this way by the back door you can have a constant supply of nutritious food over autumn and winter, using the heat of the building as a natural growing aid.

For the new gardener, the choice of plants can be overwhelming, but if you break down the garden into manageable chunks then it becomes less daunting. It’s a good idea, however, to have a scheme in mind, either for the entire garden or just for a separate outdoor sanctuary, such as wild and free with naturalistic prairie planting, formal and clipped for a modern or traditional feel, gravel and dotted plants for a Mediterranean garden.

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In addtion, think about layers. The first layer will be the bones of the border, pot, raised bed or balcony – for this, use shrubs and trees. Mix it up with evergreen and deciduous. Think about colour from leaves, berries, flowers and bark, as well as scent. For winter scent plants Chimonanthus praecox or Hamamelis x intermedia, Osmanthus or Daphne for spring, Philadelphus or Rosa for summer and Abelia or Buddleja for autumn.

The next layer is herbaceous perennials. This is where you can have fun with colour, shape, texture and form. Mix upright plants such as Agastache, Lythrum or Eryngium next to fuller plants such as Echinacea, Achillea, Geranium or Astrantia, and dot through ornamental grasses like Pennisetum, Molinia or Calamagrostis. The final layer is bulbs, rhizomes and corms. Many people think that bulbs are just spring flowering plants like Crocus or Narcissus, but there are Camassia, Allium, Crinum and Crocosmia for summer and late summer-early autumn.

Leave faded flowers on the plants over winter for architectural interest – they look especially beautiful dusted with frost. This means maintenance is kept to a minimum (cut back early spring), and helps wildlife with seed and winter cover. The shapes and textures may also entice you to go outside in December.

Some plants are great as a focal point or used as an architectural feature. Phormium with their long strappy leaves come in many colours and are great either stand-alone or mixed in with other plants. Phormium ‘Pink Stripe’ for example has olive-green leaves edged with a pink trim. It adds structure, form and colour throughout the year. For some height and as a strong feature try Cotinus ‘Grace’ which is a deciduous shrub festooned with fluffy plumes of purplish-pink flowers that look like a haze of smoke. The purple-tinted leaves need full sun to bring out the colour, and in the autumn the leaves turn a brilliant shade of transulcent red.

If strong winds blow across your garden like they’ve been doing here in Lincolnshire, then use a mix of shrubs and trees to help filter the wind and slow it down. Evergreen Aucuba or Choisya x dewitteana ‘Aztec Peral’ are fully hardy, and the latter also has clusters of fragrant pink-white flowers in late spring. Deciduous Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ comes to life over winter when the leaves fall, leaving behind strong red stems that glow in the winter sun and Euonymus alatus has dark green deciduous leaves that turn brilliant shades of red in autumn.

Think of your outdoor space as an extension to your home. It’s the outdoor room. In the same way, you light a room, use lighting in the garden in different ways. Hidden lighting, creating silhouettes and shadows can add drama to a garden. Task lighting with wall lights, table lamps and hanging lights to help to light an area, especially late at night when you need to clear away plates, toys and furniture. Ambient lights like solar lights, fairy lights candle lights and lanterns create an atmosphere, and spotlights, marker lights and security lights help you find your way around the garden at night. And, don’t forget to add a cosy corner which can come to life with the use of solar Edison-style bulb light string, a dozen or so candle lanterns and of course a fire pit, for toasting marshmallows. The fire pit will also give off heat, which is perfect for chillier nights, but there are many electrical and gas heaters on the market to fit any size of garden, patio or balcony and budget.

In the UK we’re starting to wake up to the outdoor room concept, so next time you draw your curtains this month take another look outside as your year-round sanctuary is just waiting to happen.

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