Thursday 23 January 2020

Diarmuid Gavin: Winter perennials that make the heart sing

With their beautiful blooms and striking foliage, winter perennials are the stars of the off-season garden

'Hellebore's white and purple flowers will brighten your garden right through the early weeks of the new year'
'Hellebore's white and purple flowers will brighten your garden right through the early weeks of the new year'
Hellebore flowers

We don't normally associate perennial plants with the off-season - late autumn through winter.

Perennials are a group that come back from year to year but don't form woody stems. They are the mainstay of our traditional flower borders and they are grown for their beautiful blossoms and interesting foliage. But we don't have to abandon them completely at this time of year.

In the week leading up to Christmas, I planted a garden in Ranelagh, Dublin, which, even in the middle of winter, relied on perennials for its interest. And if you walk into a garden centre, you will see swathes of hellebores smiling at you with their white and purple flowers, waiting to brighten your garden right through the early weeks of the new year. Others that perform well through winter can be extremely useful. Here's my list of top overwintering perennials.

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Hellebore flowers

⬤ Acorus gramineus (sweet flag)

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Golden variegated sweet flag is a wonderful grass-like plant which is extremely useful for its textured interest throughout autumn and winter. It has 12-inch golden-coloured leaves with green stripes, and that's plenty of colour to brighten up shady spots or damp, sunny areas. As it's native to Japan, prolonged dry spells may cause leaf tips to brown. The foliage colour and intensity of variegation depend on how much light it gets. Lots of sun will lead to a golden hue, while deeper shade highlights green. Variegation is strongest in moderate shade.

⬤ Carex (sedge)

Another excellent grass-like plant to consider is Carex, and C. oshimensis 'Evergold' or C. morrowii 'Variegata' are especially good at this time of the year. C. comans 'Bronze Perfection' is a fabulous evergreen plant with a naturally cascading habit that adds colour and movement to any planting scheme. These plants are great, too, for winter patio containers - combine them with some bright winter pansies and bachelor buttons for a colourful seasonal display.

⬤ Liriope muscari (lilyturf)

A clump-forming perennial with some cultivars that have leaves so dark they are practically black. These are good to group with other plants for interest. As tough, drought-tolerant ground cover, they're great for some awkward places in the garden. Liriope is a low-maintenance, robust plant that can grow in sandy or clay soil as well as in full sun or part shade, as long as the ground has good drainage.

⬤ Sedum 'Autumn Joy' (stonecrop)

While so much else ends when summer says goodbye, Sedum 'Autumn Joy' is just beginning to put on its show. This plant has fleshy leaves and grows to 24 inches. Its large heads of pink flowers appear in early autumn, eventually fading to a copper colour before finally turning red. The blooms can last from August into November and are wonderful for attracting butterflies. It prefers moderately fertile, moist soil in full sun, but can take it drier.

⬤ Iris unguicularis (Algerian iris)

This is a vigorous evergreen perennial that brings much-needed colour to empty winter borders from October to March. If it's happy, its narrow, grassy leaves are topped with beautiful lilac or light-blue honey-scented flowers all winter long. It will enjoy a warm, sunny, well-drained aspect and is ideal for growing on banks and in borders, flower beds and containers. It will need some protection from severe winters, and really good drainage is essential as the rhizomes will rot off if the soil is too damp. Sprinkle a little bone meal over the area before planting. Cut back leaves to allow the sun to ripen the rhizomes, which is essential for good flowering. Divide clumps once they become too large and congested.

⬤ Viola tricolor (heart's ease)

This is a joyful little plant to have in any garden. It is one of three native species of pansies, and it produces compact flowers with petal bouquets in pretty shades of yellow, blue, violet and white. Handily, it flowers in autumn, and often in winter, and seeds readily.

⬤ Arum italicum (Italian arum)

The Italian lily is a tuberous perennial with broad arrow-shaped leaves that appear in the autumn, growing to a height of 12 inches. The foliage dies back in the summer, just as the berries appear. After they fade away, the foliage reappears, remaining until the next summer, and is lush and green all winter.

Irish Independent

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