PUBLISHED: 14:09 30 December 2007 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013
Keeping your patch looking good for as much of the year as possible is never easy, and not surprisingly the winter months are the trickiest to fill, with the chilly days of January being the hardest of all. Inspiration can come from visiting other...
You may be surprised at the number of plants that choose January as the month in which to show their colours. Probably the flower that springs to mind most readily is the dainty snowdrop. The common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) has naturalised in Britain and makes a glorious picture, carpeting woodlands in many places, including Hestercombe Gardens , which is open throughout the month, and the breathtaking Snowdrop Valley on Exmoor. Extensive ribbons of snowdrops line the wooded banks of the River Avill near Wheddon Cross throughout February, and this spot has become so popular that a special park-and-ride scheme operates with buses laid on from Wheddon Cross to take visitors to see Snowdrop Valley.
The common snowdrop has crossed with the many imported species of snowdrops introduced to this country - for example, the Russian snowdrop (G. plicatus) brought back by soldiers from the Crimean War and the Turkish snowdrop (G. alenii) - giving rise to the masses of garden cultivars we see today. Pretty examples include Galanthus 'Puck', 'Ophelia' and 'Hill Poe', with G. elwesii monostrictus being another delightful winter luxury. Each cultivar is characterised by its own specific green markings inside the flower and its particular leaf shape. Once you get the snowdrop 'bug', you will realise there is a lot more to these little white creatures than meets the eye! In a garden setting, as opposed to a wild area, pure white snowdrops can look spectacular against the red stems of cornus or yellow winter aconites.
Inspiration can come from visiting other gardens open at this time, and from perusing nursery catalogues that give ideas for late winter
Cyclamen coum, when planted in the right situation beneath trees or shrubs, and with plenty of well-rotted leaf mould to thrive in, will, like the snowdrop, reward you by slowly developing into an eye-catching expanse; and the diminutive Scilla mischtschenkoana 'Tubergeniana' (white squill), with tiny white flowers dotted all the way up its stem, can astonish you by emerging at the end of January and early February. Early to flower too is the rich, velvety Iris reticulata 'George', whose beauty will stop you in your tracks.
Another sure-fire winter winner is the helleborus, which is doing its stuff even before the snowdrops get going. By trimming off excess or damaged foliage you can ensure that the colourful nodding heads are exposed to best effect. Helleborus orientalis (the Lenten rose) comes in a multitude of shades from pink and peach to white, purple and burgundy, and many are speckled with spots. H. niger (the Christmas rose) has dark, evergreen leaves and beautiful flowers, normally white but occasionally tinged with pink. Avon Bulbs, from South Petherton, stock a fine collection of helleborus, and have always got some new treat on the go, for instance, H. x sternii 'Broughton Beauty', which has unusual green flowers flushed with pink, and reddish-coloured leaves.
You may be surprised at the number of plants that choose January as the month in which to show their colours
For other January garden stars, check out Broadleigh Garden at Bishops Hull in Taunton. The five-acre nursery and display gardens are open to visitors every weekday for a £1 donation to charity, and here you will find a glorious profusion of early colour. The winter Iris unguicularis (stylosa) in all its forms is an amazing sight, covered in flowers, each short-lived but produced in abundance. Nursery owner Christine Skelmersdale is especially delighted with her recent introduction, Primula vulgaris 'Taigetos'. "This is an extra-special plant," she says. "For the last five years we have been gradually building up our stock of this magnificent white primrose, named after the mountains where it was first collected many years ago. It starts flowering early in the New Year, often in December, and totally covers itself with pure-white blossoms. We have a dramatic planting of it under the red stems of cornus."
January may seem a touch premature for narcissus, but there are some varieties that flower this early. Chris Ireland-Jones of Avon Bulbs recommends the pale-cream-coloured, multi-headed, softly perfumed Narcissus Paperwhite 'Scilly Spring' and N. Paperwhite 'Ziva', which flowers from December through to January.
"Both of these are best suited to a sheltered spot and are also excellent for forcing in pots for indoor display during the winter," says Chris. "They have a huge scent. They need lots of light and only protection from frost, so nothing too warm."
Once you get the snowdrop bug you will realise there is a lot more to these little white creatures than meets the eye!
Other early flowerers include Narcissus 'Crewenna' with a white perianth around the yellow trumpet, and N. 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation', which is yellow throughout with a flared trumpet. "This one's real star quality," enthuses Chris, "is that it really does flower in the garden at New Year and is going over only when the main season begins."
So, take heart, January is not such a blank canvas in the garden as you might imagine, and those dank, dismal days really can be brightened up by carefully selecting a striking range of early-flowering plants.
Visit a winter garden or nursery this month and get inspired:
Avon Bulbs (01460 242177, www.avonbulbs.co.uk; Broadleigh Bulbs tel 01823 286231, www.broadleighbulbs.co.uk; and Hestercombe Gardens tel 01823 413923, www.hestercombegardens.com. The Snowdrop Valley Park-and-Ride will run from 2-25 February. For more information call Exmoor National Park Centre on tel 01398 323841 or visit www.wheddoncross.org.uk/snowdropvalley.htm.
What are your favourite winter-flowering plants? Share your special tips for creating colour in the garden with other readers on the Forum.