Diarmuid Gavin: The winter garden goodies we should consider including in our plots
One of the delights of gardening is that when winter weather allows there's always something to entice you out into the garden. Indeed, when trees are stripped of their leaves, when bulbs are still hiding, when our herbaceous perennials don't dare to peep their heads out from under their compost and soil blankets, the plants that are performing shine like precious jewels in otherwise dormant plots. And the rewards for searching for these jewels are immense.
In cold weather and against a backdrop of icy clear skies, scent and colour are enhanced, leading us to appreciate the amazing gift that gardening brings to our temperate havens. Our lack of extreme weather - never too hot or too cold - allows us to grow plants which have originated all around the globe. So this means we really do have our pick of seasonal joys.
With plots getting smaller, the most sensible style of gardening to have is a mixed one, using trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, grasses and bulbs so there's something happening all year round.
We need to let our garden interest jump from autumnal leaf colour to spring bulbs - winter gems can be that rare delight. So what winter garden goodies should we go in search of or consider including in our plots?
The witch hazels (Hamamelis) cast a magic spell. They flower on bare wood so they are not fighting with foliage for attention. And what flowers! Delicate paper fronds in bright yellows ('Pallida'), coppery oranges ('Jelena') and reds ('Diane') with a spicy smell. They prefer neutral to acidic soil but generally do well if the soil is humus rich and well drained. They won't thrive on a shallow chalky soil and will do much better if sheltered from cold, harsh winds.
Wintersweet, or Chimonanthus praecox, is another treasure to be found at this time of year. Its pale yellow waxy looking flowers on bare stems emit a delicious scent. It's best grown against a warm, south-facing wall.
Daphnes (above) are classic winter beauties, 'Jacqueline Postill' being a star performer. This needs to be planted near a path where you can get up close and drink in the intensely fragrant flowers which are purple pink outside and white within. For an easy-to-grow fragrance, try Viburnum farreri which never disappoints, it's white, tinged with pink flowers which have an exquisite bouquet, again on bare stems.
If there's a space for a small tree, Azara microphylla emits a gorgeous vanilla scent from tiny greenish yellow flowers in late winter and early spring. It's a small evergreen shrub or tree with small dark green leaves and will tolerate some shade.
More space is required for the mimosa tree (below), Acacia dealbata. It has beautiful silvery fern-like foliage that florists like for their arrangements and is covered in yellow pompom flowers in January with the most delicious fragrance. However, it can be a bit tender, especially when young. Although it seems to get hardier with age, it may only be suitable for the south and west of the country or in a conservatory.
It's not just scent though - when foliage drops, it can reveal hitherto hidden beauty. Dogwood shrubs really come into their own in winter - fully clothed they are unremarkable but when their bare stems are revealed, you can appreciate the vivid colour of their stems - Cornus alba 'Sibirica' is the bright red one; Cornus flaviramae has yellow green stems.
Sarcococca is a shrub which forms a dense evergreen mound. It's known as Christmas Box or Sweet Box because at this time of the year it flowers. The display isn't overwhelming with insignificant white flowers peppering the green globes. But the scent they omit is intoxicating. It grows happily in partial, even deep shade, but doesn't like bright sunshine.
Mahonia is another common winter beauty. It has architectural evergreen foliage which is somewhat like holly and looks great all year. Spikes of bright yellow scented flowers crown the tall plants in winter. Mahonia x media is the best winter flowering variety, being hardier than most types.
So, enjoy your winter planting and its heavenly scent.