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Colour when it's cool

11 August 2023

Our landscaping expert recommends 10 plants to warm things up with a blast of colour.

WORDS & PHOTOS Mark Rayner

Vivid Kniphofia or red-hot pokers

There’s something quite enchanting about the garden in winter, with many herbaceous plants lying low and leafless trees showing off their fine form, but sometimes a burst of colour is just what’s needed as we head towards a new season of spring growth. Whether it’s a few flowering perennials or shrubs, some colourful winter foliage or even ornamental bark, here’s a few ideas to inject some cool-season colour.

  1. Vivid Kniphofia (pictured)
    As their common name suggests, a dazzling explosion of searing orange or yellow red-hot pokers is sure to bring some much-needed warmth on a chilly day. And though they may have fallen out of favour (along with agapanthus) as a mere roadside ‘filler’, a well-placed clump of this easy-care plant in the right spot will bring much joy when there may be little else in flower. They’ll also bring joy to wildlife, attracting bees, butterflies and birds with their bright blooms and sweet nectar. They prefer a sunny spot in well-drained soil, and do be sure to allow enough space for their eventual height and spread (around 1.8m).
  2. Evergreen Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’
    To be honest, this evergreen beauty looks great all the time, but it really comes into its own in the cooler months when the deep red autumnal bracts develop a pink and cream centre over winter before turning dark red again. It’s a vigorous shrub that responds well to pruning in spring and provides the home florist with plenty of colourful material year-round. This sun-loving favourite does best in well-drained soil so is particularly good for coastal gardens. Frost-hardy once established, this bold shrub can reach a height of up to 3m.
  3. Stalwart Viburnum tinus ‘Emerald Beauty’
    For a hard-working shrub with strong evergreen foliage and a profusion of delicate white flowers in late winter, look no further than the popular viburnum ‘Emerald Beauty’. An improvement on the parent plant Viburnum tinus, this useful cultivar (along with its close cousin ‘Eve Price’) is great for adding year-round structure to the garden (in sun or shade) and can also be used as hedging. More tolerant of harsh conditions than many shrubs, this stalwart favourite can even be utilised to provide shelter for more delicate plants. Grows to a height of 2m or more, but it can be trimmed to size if required.
  4. Bold Helleborus foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’
    This bold perennial is a fabulous addition to any garden, with its striking evergreen foliage on red stems and attractive clumping habit. As if this wasn’t enough, it rewards even further in winter, putting on a gorgeous display of creamy lime-green flowers that last for several months. Plant in moist but well-drained soil in partial shade for best results. Like all hellebores, it will dislike being moved once established so don’t be tempted to divide it. A happy specimen will reach 75cm tall, with a spread of around 50cm.
  5. Textural ornamental kale
    Another popular winter bedding plant is ornamental kale, with its distinctive crinkly leaves in colours ranging from white and cream through to pinks and reddish purples. Grown from seed in autumn or bought as seedlings and planted directly for some instant winter interest, this easy-to-grow toughie will also add colour and texture to container combinations or hanging baskets.
  6. Cheerful potted pansies
    For instant winter potted colour look no further than the ever-popular pansies, with their cheerfully coloured petals and a distinctive dark central ‘eye’. Available in a multitude of colours, from creams and bright yellows and reds through to dark blues and purples, these deceptively robust workers go on and on flowering throughout the cooler months. Great when mass-planted as bedding plants, or grown in pots or hanging baskets to brighten up a deck or patio, pansies are perfectly happy in sun or shade but do require a moist, free-draining soil – and in damp spots they may be susceptible to mildew.
  7. Heady Daphne odora ‘Leucanthe’
    No successful winter garden is complete without the sweet heady scent of daphne wafting through the air. There are a number of cultivars available bearing cool-season flowers, from pure white through to darker pinks. Daphne odora ‘Leucanthe’, with its white and pink-blushed blooms, is one of the most popular. This fine evergreen plant does best in semi-shade in a moist but well-drained neutral or slightly acidic soil and only requires a light pruning after flowering to maintain shape. Be aware, however, that daphne is toxic if ingested.
  8. Unusual Acer griseum adds colour with bark
    For something a little different, stop to consider the potential of colourful bark on a deciduous tree to add some visual punch to your winter garden. The paperbark maple has this eye-catching quality in spades. This jaw-dropping specimen tree is grown for a number of reasons, including its upright and narrow growth habit as well as its stunning red and orange firecracker display of autumn leaf colour, but what really sets it apart is its gorgeous chestnut-brown bark, which naturally peels, paper-like, to reveal a rich orange-red wood beneath. This native of China demands moist, well-drained soil, and it can reach a height of 7m or more after 10 years. For those with less space, it can also be successfully grown as bonsai.
  9. Bee favourite Phylica pubescens
    For a touch of the exotic consider adding the flannel flower to your list of winter-flowering favourites, with its long-lasting, attractive, cream-coloured feathery blooms and resilient evergreen foliage. This rounded vigorous shrub is especially good for the coastal garden and is a firm favourite with bees and floral artists alike. It requires little maintenance, apart from a trim after flowering, but will thank you for a sunny, well-drained spot. May reach a height of up to 1.5m.
  10. Flamboyant Coprosma ‘Tequila Sunrise’
    As its cultivar name suggests, this variegated coprosma is a veritable visual cocktail of colour, with its bold foliage turning from lime green and yellow in spring through sunset orange to a deep volcanic burgundy come winter. Great when grown in a container and clipped to maintain shape, this flamboyant showstopper thrives in full sun where its foliage colour will dazzle. Eventually reaching a height and spread of around 1m, it will need protection from frost.

Read more from Mark Rayner on landscaping topics in every issue.

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