How to plan for year-round colour
Successful landscaping creates environments that offer aesthetic appeal at all times of year, not just in the flower ‘high seasons’ of spring and summer. While it’s true that there is a plethora of choice for beautiful blooms at these times of year, there are plenty of plants which prove winter doesn’t need to be barren, creating interest with their flowers, form, leaf or stem colour. Read on to find out how to bring year-round colour to any landscape.
Stars for all seasons
Plants that shine at all times are the backbone of a relatively low maintenance landscape that delights throughout the year. Whilst extra interest might be added seasonally with annuals and perennials, these stalwarts will maintain structural impact and colour.
With boughfuls of blossom in spring, attractive fruits in summer and autumn leaf colour, apple and pear trees are a fantastic choice. They can also be used to create features along fenced or walled walkways and boundaries by being grown in the espalier style. A great choice is Pyrus Calleryana ‘Chanticleer’, an ornamental pear with large, teardrop shaped leaves which take on fiery shades of red and orange in autumn and often last until late December. It is also early to leaf in spring.
Crab apple varieties are another great choice. Try Malus x purpurea ‘Neville Copeman’ for purple leaves which later flush green, violet blossoms and orangey-red fruit. Malus ‘Comtesse de Paris’ is equally stunning, with pink buds that put forth white flowers and, later bright yellow fruit and lovely autumnal foliage.
Chimonanthus praecox, known as Wintersweet or Japan all-spice, is a stunning plant to grow against a fence or wall, with delightful fragranced flowers that bloom in winter, their purple inner petals surrounded by longer, delicate ones of pale yellow-green.
Oak-leaf hydrangeas are particularly long-flowering, boasting a profusion cone-shaped flowerheads covered in clusters of white flowers. The flowers gradually take on a pinkish hue into late summer and autumn, at which point their foliage, too, takes on beautiful bronze, red, burgundy and purple tones. Try ‘Applause’ for a full range of foliage shades, and ‘Snow Queen’ for particularly magnificent blooms.
These fantastically versatile architectural plants, with their striking lance-shaped leaves, come in a huge variety of sizes and colours. Hardy and evergreen, they add year-round interest and can be used as feature plants or to add texture in a bed of mixed shrubs. Plant a combination of complementary or contrasting colours for stunning effect. Some lovely varieties include Phormium ‘Bronze Baby’ whose coppery leaves have an arching habit, Phormium ‘Jester’, with variegated leaves of fresh green and vivid reddish-pink and Phormium ‘Platts Black’, whose jet-coloured foliage can be utilised to great effect to highlight the colours of other plants.
Known and loved for their vivid stem colours in the colder seasons, winter dogwoods add structure, texture and colour to a landscape. Try Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ for crimson stems, Cornus sanguinea ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’ orange or pink foliage in autumn and coral colour in winter, and Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ for springlike greenish-yellow. Dogwoods are also great candidates for underplanting with winter bulbs.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aphrodite’ is a vigorous shrub with a spreading habit and large, narrow-petalled flowers of burnt orange with yellowish tips which bloom in winter on leafless branches to great effect. The foliage in autumn is yellow.
The snowy mespilus or juneberry tree (or shrub) combines bronze foliage with white flowers in spring, red fruit that darkens to purplish-black, and orange and red leaves in autumn.
Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’
From pinkish-purple blossom in spring, to heart-shaped violet leaves in summer and yellow foliage in autumn, ‘Forest Pansy’ offers visual delight for most of the year. Even when its leaves have dropped, the shape of this multi-stemmed plant is attractive.
Other plants that offer great value for most of the year include the red guelder rose (Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’) and Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’ (or Japanese snowball).
Depending on the timescale of your project, your maintenance schedules and budgets, your planning may include for some seasonal additions – either from planned underplanting with bulbs, bedding plants or shrubs and trees whose seasonal displays are particularly brilliant. Here are a few suggestions for fantastic colour every month of the year.
Colour in the cold
In January, the shrub Mahonia japonica comes into its own, with blue-black berries and pale yellow flowers. Snowdrops also create delicate beauty and the promise of spring. They continue into February, when you can also try various irises for stunning violet colour, or the hybrid Lenten rose, Helleborus x hybridus, whose colours range from white, yellow and green to pink and purple, sometimes with spotted detail within the blooms. Crocus may begin to peep through in February, but they come to the fore in March, as do primoses (Primula vulgaris). The delicate pastel colours of the crocus and the shy, low-lying primrose bring joy into any heart.
Spring and summer brilliance
April and May mark peak time for brightly coloured spring flowers, such as tulips and violas, and Euphorbias mark the turning point of late spring with glowing yellow blooms. There are hundreds of rose varieties to choose from, and many of them will bloom in June, as do Alliums and Astranias, while July is the season when the heady scent of sweet peas fills the air, and their delicate multi-coloured blooms signal summer. For August, Phlox and Dahlias come into their own. Try Phlox x arendsii ‘Hesperis’ for lilac blooms and scented evenings, and combine with grasses, heleniums, helianthus and rudbeckias.
As late summer begins to fade and herald autumn, rudbeckias are at their peak. Try Rudbeckia x fulgida deamii for a stunning golden display. Echinaceas are another great plant for this time of year. In October, red and pink nerines blend beautifully with the emerging autumnal colours of a landscape. Try Nerine ‘Zeal Giant’ for a tougher variety that shimmers in vivid pink.
In November most colour is coming from foliage. Japanese maples and mountain witch alder (Fothergilla major) offer some of the best. The red berries of Sorbus acuparia (native mountain ash) mark the end of the year, and attract a range of ravenous songbirds to admire.
Carpets of colour
There may be less variety available for a winter landscape, but the flowers that do brave the elements tend to work well en masse. Cyclamen, crocuses, winter aconites and snowdrops all create stunning carpets of colour, either as a standalone feature or underplanting taller architectural plants or trees.
You’ve got year-round colour in your environment now, but blooms are still sparse in comparison to the bounty of summer. Using architectural plants to create a clear visual structure for your landscape can counteract the barren feel of excess space.
One option is to use evergreen shrubs which respond well to topiary, such as yew. Shaped shrubs and trees can create wonderful points of interest throughout the garden, or mark boundaries at intervals. Box balls or yew pyramids both work well here. These shrubs (and others, including Griselinia littoralis, which boasts glossy green leaves and thrives in coastal environments) can be used for hedging, too. This can help to maintain cohesiveness in a landscape during the colder months.
Other shrubs and trees are also effective as focal points in a landscape, such as phormiums, olive trees or yucca plants. They can also be used to fill space: plan for a range of heights and foliage colour in a bed to add texture and interest.
Tree tints all year
Trees are a wonderful option for year-round colour, with many beautiful varieties boasting wonderful bark, sprays of colourful blossom or richly tinted autumn foliage. Trees worth looking at whatever the time of year include purple-leaved Fagus sylvatica (copper beech) varieties, Euonymus europaeus (spindle tree), Sambucus nigra (common elder) and Betula nigra (river birch). See our blog on tree avenues for more inspiration. There’s still time to take advantage of root-ball season, which ends in March. You can find our more about the pros and cons of bare-root and root-ball versus container grown trees here.
Spoilt for choice
There simply isn’t enough room in one blog to cover all the plants that can add seasonal colour to a landscape and remain attractive for the rest of the year. However, some other species that are worth considering include Azalea, Bamboo, Bay, Camellia, Ceanothus, Choisya, Daphne, Heather, Hebe, Lavender, Nandina Domestica, Mahonia, Photinia and Pittosporum.
As you can see, there is no excuse for lacklustre landscapes, even in the depths of winter. With some prior planning, judicious plant selection and a sprinkling of seasonal maintenance, you can have year-round colour in any environment, creating a sensory delight for all seasons.