Diarmuid Gavin: Winter whites
Watch out for early bloomers that dazzle - even in the snow - and provide a fresh start to the New Year
Our winter weather has veered from bright sunshine and blue skies, to soggy days and freezing nights, with forecasts regularly predicting deep blankets of snow with ever increasing chances of a white-out.
I'm one of those people who gets excited by the prospect of snow - if it promises to hang around for just a few days before it becomes an inconvenience! I don't like when snow lingers; it's welcomed just long enough for the pretty disruption it delivers, and the slides, skating and snowmen building.
Three days is plenty, then I love a fast thaw - the garden revealed from under the cover of snow and the popping up of the first flowers of the season. Many of our winter garden plants are dressed in beguiling white hats which shine in the sometimes dull early months. White is a symbol of purity, simplicity and luxury - what a good recipe for a planting scheme. Beautiful white blossoms provide a clean and fresh start to the New Year - here are some to look out for or plant in your own garden:
The snowdrop (pictured main) is the first bulb to push up through the frozen ground and is the curtain-opener to the spring bulb season. Snowy white droplet-shaped flowers have three white outer petals and three inner segments, with some green markings. This is a bulb best planted "in the green" which means during the period it has foliage. So you didn't miss the boat by not planting them last autumn along with your daffs and tulips - now's the best time.
Ideally plant in semi-shade in a moisture-retentive soil - they don't like to dry out completely. If you'd like them to spread, Galanthus 'Magnet' is a taller vigorous variety that quickly forms good clumps. And if you have some already and wish to increase your stock, lift and divide after they have flowered.
Queen of the winter shrubs is the Camellia (pictured above with its rich glossy dark foliage, a superb background for the snowy white blossoms of 'Silver Anniversary' which have golden stamens at their centre, or 'White Snowman', which has fragrant white semi-double flowers early winter and bronze-red juvenile foliage. Camellias prefer acidic soil and their leaves will go a sickly yellow in alkaline soil, so plant in pots with ericaceous compost if your garden soil isn't suitable. A little bit of shade is good, protect young buds from cold wintry winds and early morning sun should be avoided so don't plant in an east-facing aspect.
The small white flowers of Sarcococca confusa, Sweet box, may not dazzle you but the scent certainly will - a luxuriant fragrance that hangs in the air. There's also white forsythia, Abeliophyllum, which bursts into bloom much earlier than the better known yellow forsythia. These delicately scented white flowers are borne on bare branches mid-winter and have an Oriental elegance - the shrub originates from Korea but is close to extinction in its native habitat.
Winter-flowering heaths are also in bloom at the moment. While in general many heathers prefer acidic soil, quite a few of the winter flowerers will tolerate neutral to alkaline soil, and there are some beautiful white varieties such as 'Springwood White'. 'White Perfection' has pure white flowers contrasting beautifully with its bright green foliage. Heathers make great ground cover plants but make sure they don't dry out, for example if you are planting them on a sloping bank which can get bone dry. They're low maintenance and just need a light shearing directly after flowering. Don't cut back into old wood, just lop of the flowers and a bit of the greenery.
And finally we have Helleborus to enjoy. This is a plant that will work most of the year for you with its attractive evergreen foliage and shy, nodding flowers that commence mid-winter and often stay on the plant as late as May. It works very well in those tricky shady areas and there are delightful white cultivars such as 'Wintergold' which look lovely planted by a pathway - a sign that your garden is waking up or maybe never went to sleep completely!