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Colour for all Seasons

A step-by-step guide by Anne Swithinbank tells you how to keep your garden full of colour all year round

To enjoy colour, structure and interest in our gardens all year round is what everybody wants. Even during winter, it is easy to keep your plot looking cheerful by using shiny evergreens, colourful bark and bright stems alongside plants whose blooms open during the shortest days of the year.

Careful planning will also fill the awkward gap towards the end of summer when hot, dry weather sometimes sends everything to seed. All it takes to make sure every season packs a punch is a little careful planning.

Backbone plants
There is no use fiddling about with the smaller plants in the garden if the backbone of trees and shrubs is missing or badly planned. Take a critical look at the structure of your plantings and think about how well they provide colour through the year. When adding trees and shrubs, make sure they have the space they need to grow to their full size. The gaps between can be filled with smaller, shorter-lived plants. In smaller gardens where space is limited, a long season of interest is vital.

Six of the best year-round backbone plants

Prunus serrula (Tibetan cherry)
Season: All year
What: Small deciduous tree.
Height 10m/33ft; spread 10m/33ft.
Why: Airy, white spring blossom, yellow autumn tints and year-round shiny, peeling copper coloured bark.

Viburnum farreri
Season: Autumn to spring.
What: Large deciduous shrub height 3m/10ft; spread 2.5m/8ft 3in.
Why: Clusters of scented pale pink flowers open against bare branches throughout winter. Leaves turn red-purple in autumn.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ (witch hazel)
Season: Autumn, then late winter.
What: Large but slow-growing shrub.
Why: Dainty, tree-like shape. Good autumn colour. Scented, spidery yellow flowers in the depths of winter.

Ilex x altaclarensis ‘Lawsoniana’ (holly)
Season: All year.
What: Large evergreen shrub height 3.5m/10ft 8in; spread 3m/10ft.
Why: Not many prickles, colourful gold-splashed leaves and berries if a male holly grows nearby.

Drimys lanceolata (mountain pepper)
Season: All year.
What: medium-sized evergreen shrub height 1.8m/5ft 6in; width 1.5m/4ft 6in.
Why: Neat, shiny leaves with maroon undersides and stems. Small white flowers in spring.

Cornus alba ‘Spaethii’ (dogwood)
Season: All year.
What: Deciduous shrub 1.5m/4ft 6in high and 1.5m/4ft 6in wide.
Why: Variegated yellow-edged leaves in summer. Red winter stems.

Mixed borders
In most gardens, mixed borders provide plenty of opportunity for adding colour. Having established a strong backbone, choose smaller shrubs and herbaceous perennials to fill the gaps. Hardy herbaceous plants like Heleniums, Michaelmas daisies and Japanese anemones die back for the winter, but grow again in spring and will last for many years. If you can’t be bothered to look plants up and plan a long succession of bloom, visit a garden centre every month of the year and choose plants in flower. The label will tell you how high it will grow and you’ll soon have a garden full of colour.

Any gaps in the border can be filled by bedding plants like marguerites, tobacco plants and marigolds. Buy these in late spring, enjoy their colour all summer, and pull them up in the autumn. Bulbs are great for adding colour, as they can be slotted in between existing plants. An autumn planting of crocus, hyacinth, daffodils and tulips will bring the garden alive during spring. Single colours are more effective than mixtures and the bulbs will look best planted informally in groups or drifts. Spring plantings of dahlias and gladioli add summer colour. Dahlias are particularly good for bridging that awkward gap between summer and autumn. Plant the tubers in April, provide support as the plants grow and feed them well for the best results. Unless you live in a very cold area, it is worth leaving tubers in the ground under a deep mulch. They usually come up again year after year.

Prairie-style plantings
Natural-looking, so-called prairie-style plantings, named after the American prairie species of plant are all the rage and are great fun to try. You’ll need space for this, so either make an existing border wider or create a new one and dig the soil over well. Traditional herbaceous borders tended to have a clump of this and a clump of that, with the tallest plants at the back and plants set against each other to make good colour combinations. For the prairie style, you need three, five or even more of each sort of plant.

Ornamental grasses
(Calamagrostis is a good one), Rudbeckia fulgida sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’, Verbena bonariensis, Achilleas, Sedum spectabile and Agastache are all suitable. It is better to limit yourself to three kinds of plant than buy one each of 10. Set the plants out over the border, so that they will intermingle with each other, then plant and step in only to keep the weeds down. As autumn approaches, leave the seed heads in place as they are all part of the look (and attract lots of colourful birds). Even in winter, the frosted outlines of dead stems and leaves will sparkle. The time for a clear up is late winter before growth starts again.

Creating an ornamental kitchen garden is a good way to enjoy both colour and productivity in the same space. These are usually formal in shape, and designed around a network of attractive pathways. By planting evergreen herbs like sage and rosemary and growing winter cabbages and kales, not to mention tasty mizuna and rocket for salads, there will be plenty of winter interest. A small garden could be given over entirely to productivity, but will need a regular input of time to keep the crops coming. A riot of vegetables, fruit and flowers, it could include seats, a small thyme lawn, apples grown on single stems and even a dipping pond for refilling watering cans.

Planting containers is a quick way to add colour to your garden and must be one of the most self-contained and satisfying gardening jobs there are. In one afternoon you can choose a pot, buy compost (half-and-half John Innes no. 2 and a soilless multipurpose compost is ideal), select plants and put everything together.

In late spring, plant mixtures of summery bedding plants. Choose the largest first, and then select other plants whose foliage and flowers complement the main plant. Don’t be afraid to include larger plants like Phormiums (New Zealand flax), roses and herbs. Almost any plant can be grown in a container, including lilies, lavenders and ferns. For winter, use evergreens or a twisted hazel for its corkscrew stems, with a small Narcissus like ‘Tête-à-Tête’ or ‘Jetfire’ to come up in spring.

Themed borders
Rather than have a garden full of mixed borders, it is sometimes fun to make a winter garden, spring border or a bed full of the hot colours of late summer and early autumn. Winter gardens need to be in full view of the house and could include Mahonia, Viburnum tinus, Carex and star winter foliage plant Arum italicum subsp.italicum ‘Marmoratum’ for its marbled leaves during winter and spring. For spring, repetition is a good tool and if there’s space, planting two Viburnum x carlcephalum and infilling with a variety of spring favourites such as pulmonarias, Lenten hellebores, primroses and crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) along with fresh fern fronds and perhaps, later some lily of the valley and sweet rocket. Spring flows effortlessly into early summer, but for late summer, more effort is needed. Canna (Indian shot), red and orange dahlias and Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’ will produce their hot colours until the first frosts.

Choosing plants to bring year-round colour will mean it is a pleasure on any day of the year. Remember to shop for plants right throughout the year and make sure they earn their space by putting on a long and worthwhile performance.

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