On a bleak, freezing day, there’s nothing like a winter garden to lift our spirits. Whether it’s bright berries, vividly colourful stems or winter-flowering shrubs filling the air with perfume, there are horticultural marvels with the power to bring cheer during the coldest months.

However, during mid-winter, so many of our gardens look desolate which is quite a shame. All too often we peek through the window to see bare borders, leaves frozen to the ground and frost-blackened perennials that have given up the ghost.

The good news is that winter gardens are easy to create at home. There are shrubs that flower in sub-zero temperatures and tough bedding plants to keep pots and window boxes blooming throughout the icy weather – and all are readily available from nurseries and garden centres. Here’s how you can transform your winter garden into a winter wonderland in eight easy steps:

1. Get winter bedding in

Thousands of window boxes and hanging baskets lie empty over winter, once we’ve ripped out tired summer bedding in autumn. But choose the right plants and your pots can look as spectacular on an icy day as they do in high summer. The king of winter bedding is the winter-flowering pansy (often sold by the name universal pansy). They’re cheap to buy, as tough as old boots and will keep pots and window boxes brimming with colour even when the mercury dips below zero. Hardy violas pull off a similar trick, albeit with smaller, more dainty blooms.

HollyIf you’re a fan of riot-of-colour winter bedding, plant polyanthus, which bloom in shades of red, yellow, white, pink and blue, whatever the weather. Primroses are tough cookies, too, often displaying a subtler array of colours than polyanthus. Whatever plants you go for, choose pots with good drainage and fill with multi-purpose compost before planting, as winter bedding will sulk if left to sit with roots shivering in the wet.

2. Create a stylish container

It’s easy to plant a stylish winter container or trough – and by designing your own you can do it at a fraction of the cost of ready-made planters on sale at garden centres. One plant that’s a must is Skimmia japonica‘Rubella’ – a compact shrub with intense deep-red flower buds that form in autumn and last throughout winter until flowers open in early spring. Skimmias blend seamlessly with Solanum capsicastrum, commonly known as the winter cherry, which become smothered with vivid orange ornamental fruits that look like cherry tomatoes (don’t eat them though, as they’re toxic!).

Another must to add a touch of class to your container is Gaultheria mucronata, a wonder of the winter plant world. This evergreen shrub puts on a brilliant display of berries – ranging from icy-white to red or purple. It’s also known as prickly heath, so wear gloves when planting, as its leaves can scratch. Finally, hardy cyclamen will be right at home to fill-in any gaps in the container, and why not soften the edges by planting trailing ivy?

3. Choose shrubs for fragrance

Shrubs are the backbone of winter gardens, providing structure at a time when much of the landscape can lay dormant. Shrubs with fragrant winter flowers are the unsung heroes: unlike their summer-flowering counterparts, blooms may be small, but what they lack in flower power they make up for with scent, which can be breathtakingly intense in the cold winter air.

ViolasAn all-time favourite is witch hazel, a hardy shrub that emits a fragrance so powerful from its small spidery flowers that it’ll stop you in your tracks. Go for deciduous Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’which pumps out strong perfume from bright yellow flowers in late-winter, while Hamamelisx intermedia‘Diane’ is rated as one of the top red-flowering types. Both witch hazels hold a coveted Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit (AGM) for top garden performance.

Viburnums are also a must for filling winter air with perfume: Choose Viburnumx bodnantense‘Charles Lamont’ as its clusters of small pink flowers pack a punch when it comes to scent, or opt for ‘Dawn’ which emits perfume from lighter pink and white flowers. Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) will thrive in a sunny, sheltered spot where its waxy flowers throw out a spicy perfume, while Erica x veitchii‘Exeter’ is a winter stunner with its white bell-shaped fragrant flowers. And finally, Mahoniax media‘Winter Sun’ puts on a show-stopping display of yellow flowers and they’re sweetly scented, too.

4. Add drama with fiery stems

Naked stems can display a breath-taking array of colours in mid-winter, and dogwoods are the masters of putting on a show. Plant Cornus sericea‘Flaviramea’ for luminous green stems once leaves have fallen, and for dramatic contrast, why not sit it next to the intense reds of Cornus alba‘Sibirica’? Both look magical by ponds, where vivid colours will reflect in icy water. Another top dogwood is Cornus sanguinea‘Midwinter Fire’ which will reward you with fiery stems in shades of reds and oranges. And for a real talking point, try Cornus alba‘Kesselringii’ which puts on a show of dark purple, almost black stems after shedding its leaves. Dogwoods are at their finest when grown en-masse, and they’ll thank you for being planted in a sunny spot.

5. Underplant to hide bare soil

CyclamenThere’s no reason for bare soil to be on show once perennials have died back, so consider low-growers to keep borders blooming. Hellebores, often called Christmas roses, flower at a time when little else blooms in the garden, bringing colour to shady areas in late winter and early spring. Also consider Cyclamen coum, a dainty but tough perennial with marbled leaves and pink flowers in January and February. It’s a cracker for planting in partial shade under trees and shrubs, where it spreads to create a carpet of colour. Wallflowers are a cheap and cheerful winter filler, covering bare earth with foliage in winter and bursting into bloom in early spring. 

6. Provide berries for birds

When frost and snow lies frozen on the ground, the sight of wild birds feeding is a joy in any winter garden. Plants bearing berries add colour and interest, and they provide a vital food source for feathered friends at a time when natural supplies can be scarce. Holly is an obvious favourite, but the RSPB also recommends planting berry-bearing species such as hawthorn, honeysuckle and ivy. It points out that the berries of shrubs including cotoneaster, pyracantha and berberis attract a wide range of birds, too.

7. Plant a tree for winter bark

All too often we choose a tree for autumn colour or fruit – but pick a type with beautiful bark and it’ll be a spectacular sight once bare of leaves. No winter garden is complete without Prunus serrula, the Tibetan cherry, with its polished copper bark – while ghostly white trunks of Betula utilisvar. jacquemontii, the West Himalayan birch, are a sight to behold. You can enhance the drama by directing garden lighting onto tree trunks, creating a winter wonderland – but switch lighting off overnight, to avoid disturbing wildlife.

8. Visit top winter gardens for inspiration

Hyde Hall Winter GardenOne of the best ways to gain inspiration for your own plot is to visit a winter garden, and we’re spoilt for choice in the UK. RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Essex (pictured) has opened a winter garden – a “celebration of radiant stems and leaves, peeling barks and dazzling berries”. One hundred types of dogwood (cornus) are on trial for their brilliantly coloured stems. The National Trust claims that its winter garden at Dunham Massey in Cheshire is the largest winter garden of its kind in the UK. As well as white-stemmed silver birches, you can marvel at displays of blue winter iris.

So there you have it – eight tips for creating the most beautiful winter garden. Let us know which ones you’re going to try in the comments below!

Marc Rosenberg bio
Marc Rosenburg at Powderham Plant CentreMarc Rosenberg is a freelance garden writer and editor. A former journalist with Amateur Gardening and Horticulture Week magazines, he holds seven Garden Media Guild Awards. Marc has written for publications including The Garden magazine, BBC Gardeners’ World and RHS online.