Winter Border Workshop at Petersham Nurseries

The Glasshouse Borders

I have a workshop this week where we will delve into turning our gardens, in the chill months ahead, into winter borders filled with interesting plants, colours and textures. Anchor plants with attractive foliage, the tracery and silhouettes of seedheads and dried stems and flower heads, and ornamental fruit, evergreen shrubs with scented flowers for the depths of midwinter, beautiful trees with fascinating bark, grasses and ferns, climbers to clothe the garden boundaries and bring flower into the coldest months. Golden foliage, green foliage of every shape and size, silver leaves and dark dramatic leaf too. Trees, architectural perennials and herbs, bulbs of course.

Conifers which I love but which can get a poor press, topiary, hedging …. we only have an hour and a half, so time will be well-filled I hope and I shall sweep through the plant benches for examples, while also having a selection of books and magazines to further illustrate the subject.

I have reblogged a selection of my articles and photography covering the winter garden, with examples from Kew and Wisley, the exceptional three-acre winter garden at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire, and I think the Savill Garden within Windsor Great Park. You can interrogate the site via the search box for particular plants and locations. Even summer gardens like Mottisfont Priory are getting in the act and have created a winter garden that is maturing now. Closer to home, Osterley House features in just reblogged stories. Have a look through these pages for inspiration and design ideas for your own piece of Eden.


I’ll start by borrowing several lists from the RHS garden deign book. General pointers before we get down to the plant personalities themselves.


15 ways to reveal your plots potential

  • Measure it, record it, draw it, plan it …
  • Check the levels (for slope)
  • Identify and record existing features
  • What soil do you have?
  • Is your soil healthy – can you improve it?
  • Pinpoint existing character – what stays, what can be enhanced, what is out …
  • Dig a little deeper to investigate the soil
  • Tackle troublesome plants
  • Assess materials and hard landscaping
  • Can you borrow views?
  • How private is your plot
  • Track the sun to pinpoint sun/shade throughout the day
  • Check ownership of boundaries
  • Check weight issues on balconies and roof terraces
  • Check with your local authority is major works are needed
  • Survey your plants


15 ways to make instant impact

  • Write a clear brief
  • Have accurate measurements
  • Identify key features
  • Be lavish with space – wider paved area, simple layered planting, wide beds
  • Don’t skimp on paths
  • Allow room for dining (consider shade for this?)
  • Big pots are better
  • Keep it simple
  • … and flexible
  • Think about lift effects – light or dark materials?
  • Install lighting
  • Introduce water
  • Keep structures in scale and match plants if they are going to climb them


15 ways to improve planting style

  • Decide on the theme (styles may include be formal, modernist – like formal but with more asymmetry), Arts and Craft, Cottage Garden, Japanese Garden, Mediterranean, Ecological/wildlife and exotic.
  • Work with the site – and especially consider climate, microclimate, daily variations in light, soil, drainage – all going towards putting the right plant in the right place
  • Compile plant profiles, which information might include height and spread, colour, scent, period of interest
  • Choose structural plants – Anchor plants to make up at least 30%, or more, of the planting. Once you have these, the rest will be much easier
  • Plan for crops/edible plants
  • Plant for scale – small gardens look poor with just small plants
  • Plant for privacy
  • Plant for coherence – repeat plants and use larger groups of the same plant
  • Plant for vertical interest
  • Consider plant density – think 3-5 years ahead
  • Plant for diversity
  • Select colour – of backdrops and paving as well as the plants. Flowers provide accents but foliage has an impact for much more of the year
  • Plant in containers – either blocks of the same plant, or as collections with similar themes, or contrast
  • establish associations – the relationship between different plants, looking at texture, leaf size, leaf colour – and harmonise or contrast
  • Be honest about the time you have to maintain your garden.

Putting Plants together

Planting beds should be as large as possible, even in a small garden. They will maximise rainfall coverage and increase the impact of the planting. It allows larger plants to be used, helping establish height, scale and proportions in design.

Check plants ultimate height and spread. On your plan, plants are generally represented as circles. If a plant has a spread of 60cm, you might draw three circles, just touching, to place three plants in one square meter. These will grow and just touch, but there may be a few years before they mature leaving a lot of bare soil between them and room for weeds.

Overlapping the circles by 10cm, you might put four plants in to the same space. More expensive in terms of buying plants, but more effective and will grow together more evenly. Overlapping the circles by 20cm, you might get 6 plants which will give a much fuller look, more quickly. Ultimately you may have to take one out. Annuals, bulbs and quick growing perennials and bedding may be a useful way to fill larger voids while the plants mature. Interplanting like this, and for our purposes with late winter and early spring bulbs, it can make for an exciting and inexpensive change of pace.

On deeper borders, think about access for maintenance – stepping stones maybe.

When we say keep it simple with the planting, think about repeating plants through the border, or planting larger groups




Every garden should have at least one tree. True they will cast shade, but that is something we need in our gardens, especially in southerly aspects; who wants to eat in full sun and how much more choice do you have for having a range of habitats. True, some trees are ultimately too big for smaller gardens, but choosing the right tree, with several seasons of interest, will make a very valuable addition to your garden, and can be stand alone specimens in the lawn, integrated into the border or placed in pots.


Betula utili Jacquemontii – the Silver Birch. Look out especially for Silver Shadows, Grayswood Ghost and Jermyns. A white trunk develops after a few years, with a butter yellow finish to the autumn foliage, light shade, black contrasting twigs and tolerant of a wide range of conditions.

Betula jacquemontii var utilis

The Chinese red-bark Birch is another alternative, with a pinkish blush to the bark and a darker pink to the peeling bark beneath. This one is Betula Albosinensis.


The Acer family have some good contenders, with peeling flaky bark on modest trees suitable for smaller gardens.

Acer griseum – the paperbark maple for example. Positioned where late sunshine can shine through the branches, exquisite –


The snake bark maple, Acer davidii has graphic contrasting marking with lighter veining on the trunk that is very appealing. Colours range from pinks through green and yellow, with white streaking.

Prunus serrula has metallic copper bark … Prunus ruff not quite so much, though shaggier …

Crab apples have a place in the winter garden too, and the bonus of spring blossom, good autumn colour and long lasting fruit, of several shapes, sizes and colours. Red Sentinel is a favourite – we have it planted outside Glasshouse 2, and the scarlet fruit will persist well into winter.


Eucalyptus offer interesting bark and foliage, though they can be big and benefit from being pollarded regularly to keep them as multi-stemmed shrubs rather than towering beasts, though if you have room, they are quite beautiful.

Possibly think about the strawberry tree, Arbutus undo. It is evergreen, with fragrant white flowers, very like Pieris, in the spring and colourful fruits. Arbutus unedo doesn’t have the cinnamon-bark of some of the species but it is still attractive. And of course evergreen.

Finally I’ll single out the autumn and winter flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis. This flowers for weeks on end through the coming winter months, with starry white flowers on bare stems making the sight particularly welcome on a rare sunny days in December, January, February. My favourite specimen is in the Japanese Landscape at Kew Gardens. Incidentally, this doubles as a very good winter garden, much recommended.

Skipping back to Acers, the Japanese Maple, though deciduous, makes a good candidate for a winter garden. One such as Acer palmata Sango kaku – the leaves begin dark green in Spring, develop yellows and gold in autumn and are flushed pink in the winter. The bare stems holding rain drops are a fine site.

The same can be said of Cornus alternifolia Argentea, whicg=g spreads its horizontal branches like the tiers of a wedding cake and is beautiful both in leaf and without. It has the benefit of being slow growing and still a small tree at maturity.

Holly can be a good solid form in the garden and I recommend a walk along the Holly Walk at Kew for it is a huge collection. Forms can be clipped, or used as lollipops, or left au natural. Plants are either male or female so the berries are only there the female plants and at least one male is needed for up to four or five females. Please note Golden King is a girl and Silver Queen is a boy …

Anchor Plants – like trees but including evergreen shrubs, perennials and some tender annuals, highlight their foliage and help to make a border more digestible. It calms and has a unifying effect prolonging the interest in the border often right throughout the year. Large leaves are sculptural, bolder than flowers often and for a longer period. Bamboos and grasses, ferns as well as evergreen perennials fall into this category. Consider the leaves themselves, for they ay be glossy, reflecting light, or felted, spiky, silvered, hairy, smooth, matt, variegated or velvety. The effect can be tropical (Fats japonica and Tetrapanax), controlled with clipped forms and naturally neat habits, dense, loose …. there is a huge variety to choose from for a long period of interest, foregoing flowers especially though not exclusively, in the colder winter months. Oh yes, there are flowers to come!

Mahonia Winter Sun


The following are simple lists, for the most part, and we can tick off some of the star performers and you have the names and spelling to help you highlight any that take your fancy!


Choisya ternate Aztec Prince/Aztec Gold/Royal Lace

Viburnum tinus (Eve Price/Gwenwillian)

Viburnum davidii

Mahonia Lionel Fortescue, Charity

Fatsia japonica

Osmanthus burkwoodii

Garrya eliptica

Skimmia rubella/Kew Green

Euonymus Emerald N Gold, Emerald Gaity, Silver Queen

Box (Buxus suffruticosa)\Ilex crenata

Hebe toparia/Green Globe

Pittosporum tobira

Pittosporum Elizabeth/Variegata/Golf ball/

Pinus mugo and condifers generally

Nandina domestica

Phormium tricolor

Magnolia grandiflora

Drimys winteri

Lonicera Baggeson’s Gold

Yew (Taxus)



Photinia Red Robin

Laurel (Laurus)


Daphne odora Aureomarginata


Ilex (Holly)


Deciduous shrubs for winter interest

Dogwoods with colourful stems – Cornus alba Sibirica (red), Cornus Flaverimea (yellow) and Cornus Kesselringii (black). More branching but fabulous colour on Midwinter Fire and Anny’s Winter Orange. Cornus elegantissima has silvered foliage and elegant stems too. The Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park uses them to great effect; at Wisley they reflect in the lake, as at Kew, and Harlow Carr near Harrogate threads them through a long stream side garden in flowing ribbons, set off against low growing evergreens.

You can either prune out the older, duller stems every year or cut the whole plant down every two or three years and have done.

Willow (Salix) can be grown for its ornamental stems and the ornamental black currant, Rubus cockburnianus and Rubus biflorus have a ghostly white bloom to their arching stems. The latter need space but are stunning winter plants.

Cornus avellana Contorta, the twisted hazel, is a fine specimen but watch out for reversion to the uncorksrewed version.

Lonicera Winter Beauty, Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera standisti. Gawky shrubs but amazing scent, holding on to some leaves in winter.

Viburnum x bodnanense Dawn, Deben – tall shrubs for back border with showy fragrant pink clusters of flowers on winter bare stems

Stachyurus praecox

stachyurus chinensis yellow rain

Chimonathhus grandiflora – fragrant yellow flowers on large shrub

Hamamelis (Witch Hazel)


Crataegus (Hawthorn)

Edgworthia chrysantha




Polpodium and Polystichum can look good throughout winter, being tidied up in the spring, while Evergreen Asplenium scolopendrium is a good bet for a cooler spot..



All very useful whether evergreen or deciduous – we use them extensively at Petersham as those of who who may have come to the open gardens will have seen. Miscanthus, Panicu, Calamagrostis, Anemantheles, Imperata rubra Cyclindrica, Stipa, Hakonechloa, Penisetum … all have a place. The Glasshouse borders at RHS Wisley are a great place to see them locally. Bamboo much in evidence there as well as at Kew.


Strong bones, woody stems, dried flower heads and seed heads, ready to catch the frost or late rays of sunshine. Otherwise, fresh evergreen foliage, colouring up for the winter as with Bergenia, or beautiful foliage and flowers for the exceptional Hellebore family.




Perovskia atripicifolia


Verbena bonariensis



Acanthus spinosus

Veronicastrum like Fascination

Crocosmia seedheads




Euphorbias especially









If you see the most recent photographs from my visit to Kew Gardens, the long double borders are a masterclass in using strong forms, yew topiary, evergreen perennials and seed heads with grasses.

Hydrangeas fall into the silhouettes and tracery and names like Annabelle work very well. There are lots of photos in recently posted and reblogged stories.



Evergreen honeysuckle, Lonicera Halliana, Hall’s Prolific

Star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides

Clematis – Avalanche/Oberon, Clematis armandii, Clematis Winter Beauty, Clematis cirrhosis Freckles, Wisley Cream and Jingle Bells

Jasminum nudiflorum











Witch Hazel

Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postil, Darjeeling. Gurkha

Daphne odora Aureomarginata

Witch Hazels




Winter honeysuckleEdgworthia chrysantha


Viburnum x bodnantense


BULBS of course




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