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The winter structural skeleton and frosty delights

This time of year gives us a great opportunity to look at the basic structure of the garden.

Do you have a good percentage of evergreen shrubs to give the space a skeleton?

Bare bones of the herb garden

Box balls, Rosemary and a standard bay give winter structure and summer bulk

Are the pathways in the right place to give access to bird feeder, bins or shed without getting muddy feet?

Phormium Yellow wave and brick path laid in basket-weave pattern

Are there interesting things to see from the house while you keep warm inside?

Helleborus niger hybrid

Do you have some ‘winter specials’ which are at their best on a bright cold afternoon?

Mahonia media Charity

I walked round my garden today and asked myself some of these questions…and except for the muddy path the dog takes down the garden to bark at the foxes, the answer is ‘yes!’

Pathways don’t need to be paved  – stepping stones, bark chip paths and loose gravel surfaces all work to keep the feet dry and it’s best to keep off the lawn when the surface is wet or frosted too.

Most good skeleton plants are evergreen for all year round performance.  The planting is intended to give winter bulk and form, provide boundary screening or hedging perhaps or maybe divisions within an overall layout.  The textbook balance of evergreen to deciduous shrubs in a mixed border is one third to two thirds, but either way round.  Many of the good evergreen shrubs are shade tolerant so maybe in an east facing spot I would go for two thirds evergreen but in a sunny border use mainly deciduous flowering shrubs.  In a border viewed all year round from the main sitting room of the house I would probably use more evergreens – herbaceous borders can look pretty grim out of season!

This view below from my sitting room comprises a background of laurel, portugese laurel and Viburnum, with bright highlights from Hebe, ivy, Euonymus, and Pittosporum while Choisya and Mahonia screen the area behind the bench.

See below how this same border looks in the summer  – pretty certainly, but maybe lacking some flower colour climbing through the ivy and Euonymus on the fence.  Established shrubs will tolerate light climbers scrambling through eg Clematis or I may try annual sweet peas or Morning Glory (Ipomoea).

Some shade tolerant structural evergreens

Viburnum tinus

Buxus (box – often clipped as balls or standards)

Taxus (yew)

Skimmia japonica





Sarcococca (Christmas box)

Structural evergeens for a sunny mixed border

Choisya ternata

Eleagnus varieties


Berberis darwinii


Pittosporum varieties




Many of the winter flowering evergreens are scented and at their best on a still afternoon.  I have Sarcococca confusa planted by the gate to the back garden and its perfume can stop me in my tracks – It’s hard to believe such an insignificant flower can produce such a delightful smell.

The plant is covered with glossy black berries too.

I have good red berries on a Skimmia japonica this year but my Pyracantha is almost berry less because I decided it had got too big and gave it a drastic pruning in the summer.  There are some spectacular Pyracantha plants about the town – keep an eye out for them literally covered in berries.

Skimmia japonica

There is good perfume from the Mahonia media Charity planted by the bench and on the front drive and pretty berries on the Nandina.  The Mahonia berries will come much later for the blackbirds to gorge on.



I could feel a change of season this afternoon – the primroses are out, the bulbs are pushing through the ground and in the pots I planted in November to fill up gaps in the borders, I noticed the daffodils flowering bravely on the peanut roundabout in the frost earlier this week and Cyclamen are poking their heads through the leaf litter  – the garden centres have their stocks of summer bulbs ready to get started – let’s get gardening, spring is on its way!

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