Gardening: Bring in the blooms

By Simon Farrell

'Tis the season of fragrance, fruit and birdsong, writes Simon Farrell.

Brighten your garden with the colourful flowers of the Himalayan Luculia. Photo / Supplied
Brighten your garden with the colourful flowers of the Himalayan Luculia. Photo / Supplied

This time of year can be depressing in the garden if all you do is look at the ground - fallen leaves, damp lawns and mucky plots are hard to get excited about.

Instead, lift your gaze and focus on fragrant winter flowering shrubs - they offer luscious blooms, heady scent and homes for birds.

Even better, shrubs tend to be self-sufficient, requiring little or no winter input. "Tending" them is a real luxury - the family thinks you're working in the garden, but really you're just wandering around smelling the flowers and listening to the birds. What could be more therapeutic?

Plant selection is the key to a successful winter garden. To attract birds, you can't go wrong with a crab apple tree (Malus 'Wright's Scarlet'). The birds love the fruit and feel safe dining at a height away from cats. Crab apple trees are deciduous and drop fruit so don't plant them where they will overhang paths or driveways if you want to keep that work to a minimum. Plant them in a mulched garden and the uneaten fruit will simply decompose.

They are usually smaller so can comfortably fit into most gardens. Their spring blossoms are a bonus.

If pink is your colour then the Himalayan Luculia (Luculia gratissima) is the plant for you. It forms a dome-shaped open bush with large olive green leaves and big pink flower heads. The fragrance is gorgeous and the abundant blooms can't help but brighten the garden. They prefer a sheltered spot with plenty of sun. Frost knocks them so choose their location wisely.

If you are blessed with a frosty climate then winter sweet (Chimonanthus praecox) is an ideal plant. It is a deciduous shrub that produces flowers on bare branches and has a strong spicy scent. The flowering branches are favourites for arrangements, or are dried and included in potpourri. The summer foliage is nothing to get excited about so plant it at the back of a border with summer flowering perennials in front.

For small semi-shaded spots daphne is a traditional winner (Daphne odora leucanthe and Daphne odora rubra). They are renowned for their intensely fragrant flower clusters and have been adored throughout the world's temperate gardens for centuries.

The secret to good daphne health and plenty of flowers is free-draining soil and keeping them on the dry side in winter. So plant them in a rain shadow, such as under the eave of a building. Prune just after flowering and feed them azalea and camellia food twice a year. They slowly grow to no more than about 1m, so are great beside a path or entrance.

The rock stars of early and mid-winter are camellias; rhododendrons are the flowering aristocracy of early spring. They both offer more than just foliage and flower. Camellias are wonderfully versatile with options for a number of landscaping roles. Grow them as standards, hedges, multi-trunked specimens, small trees, screening trees and even ground covers.

Rhododendrons come in all shapes, sizes and colours and some are fragrant. Rhododendron 'John Bull' has a delightful fragrance, is compact in habit, copes with a broad climate range and produces copious white flowers in late winter and early spring.

So take the opportunity presented by damp soil to plant a few winter flowering shrubs to brighten up the months ahead.

Top winter flowering shrubs

(F) = fragrance

Camellia High Fragrance (F)
Camellia Lutchuensis (F)
Camellia Fairy Blush: Good for hedging and topiary.
Camellia Early Pearly: Fast-growing hedging type.
Camellia San Dimas: Grows into a small tree
Camellia Paddy's Perfumed (F)
Rhododendron Fragrantissimum (F): Probably the most fragrant rhododendron
Rhododendron John Bull (F): A compact version of Fragrantissimum
Daphne Odora Leucanthe (F): Flowers up the stems and tips of branches
Daphne Odora Rubra (F): Flowers on the tips of branches only
Winter Sweet (F): Great in cold climates
Luculia Gratissima (F): Best in frost-free locations

- Herald on Sunday

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