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Worth the Winter Wait

Sarah Naybour on how the winter months are a fantastic time to prepare your garden for the coming growing season

Most of us are limited in resources, and especially time. The general rule for low maintenance is to plant a lot of the same plants...

Many people will look out at their gardens at this time of year from the cosy warmth of their homes and think there is nothing they can do but wait inside for spring – but will it be worth the wait? Will spring actually bring anything to look forward to?

If not, get out there and make sure it is.

The winter months are a fantastic time to plan and prepare your garden for the coming growing season, and I do not only mean planting seeds and carrying out horticultural chores. In fact quite a bit of the work can be done without getting your fingers cold and your boots mucky, but indoors, researching, planning and compiling your planting lists for the spring.

Firstly though, take a close look at your garden and decide what it is you do and don’t like. What really annoys you? What has got overgrown? Is there a tree which has got so big that it is blocking out valuable light and warmth? Is there a fence that is old and rotting? Were there any plants which performed badly this year, and why? Could it be you had the wrong plant in the wrong place? Or are they so old they are not performing well? If it is an ornamental grass, perhaps it needs dividing?



Structure and shape

When I am designing a planting plan I always start with the structural plants: trees, evergreen shrubs and ornamental grasses. These form the permanent background against which the colours, heights and textures of the perennials come and go through the seasons.

The next few months are perfect for dealing with trees and shrubs, while they are dormant, and many nurseries will be selling bare root stock, which is much cheaper than the container grown versions sold all year round. So if you need to plant a hedge or new tree, now is the perfect time.

But make sure you research your trees and hedge plant choices carefully. The mature spread and height; evergreen vs. deciduous; suitability for soil type; aspect, flowering, and fruiting, are just some of the considerations you need to bear in mind when making decisions…

Make sure you stake new trees correctly so that they are not blown over by winter storms. Leave them staked for 3-4 yrs. If you want to plant with the winter in mind, then remember that trees and shrubs which produce berries need to be in a warm position and you will need at least one male plant to provide pollen for the berry producing females. If you want holly, then buy from a specialist nursery where you will find many more varieties than in the garden centres.

This is also a fantastic time to look at the shape of your trees. Without leaves their ‘architecture’ is visible. The ideal shape for most trees is open, so take out any crossing wood to open up the canopy and allow light to penetrate. Remove any dead, dying or diseased wood and tip the branches of flowering and fruiting trees.

With a very congested tree, be careful not to over prune. Instead, plan to decongest the tree gradually over the next couple of years, or the tree will react by sending out a plethora of new upright shoots, known as water sprouts. These are leafy shoots that don’t bear fruit or flowers and will just shade the tree, which is the problem you were trying to sort out in the first place.

While I am on the subject of plant ‘architecture’, if it is still warm enough you can tie in and train rambling roses. Did you know that bending the stems of roses slows down the sap and encourages more flowers? This is why coiling them around and obelisk or vertical support can result in more flowers. But, be careful to bend only this year’s supple stems without snapping. Start by removing dead, damaged or diseased wood. Then, as with the trees, create an open form by removing any stems which cross and rub over each other. A good rule of thumb is to remove 1/3 of the older stems from the base, replacing them with new ones.

And so to beds

Once you have dealt with the permanent structures turn your attention to the ornamental beds.

I highly recommend removing any plant which failed last year, or which you are not happy with. I love Achillea and planted them in abundance in my garden. They were beautiful the first year and then got weaker and more spindly over the next season, so finally I gave up, took them out and replaced them with Heleniums, which do very well. So be honest with yourself and if something is not working take the opportunity to remove it now and prepare the soil for planting with something new in the spring.

Once you have removed the plants, hoe the soil and add a good quantity of general soil improver. You do not need to do hours of digging. Just let the winter weather do it for you. The rain, freeze and thaw will do all the hard work.

If you have heavy clay soil, a good trick through the winter is to add a thin layer of grit, followed a week or two later by a layer of soil improver. Keep up this ‘layer cake’ method over the next few months and in the spring your heavy clay will be much easier to work.

If it’s a warm winter this can be a good time to dig out new beds and lightly fork over the soil, or choose the ‘layer cake’ method above to improve the soil and dig it over once the weather improves.

Once the outdoor work is complete make yourself a nice big cup of tea (or a glass of wine), and sit down to plan your planting for the spring.

Choose your colours

When planning choose a colour palette (maybe a new one for each season, if you are ambitious). Use the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) website and encyclopaedia or a reputable online nursery like crocus to give you the mature height, spread, aspect of each plant.

Plan to plant in odd numbers. Plants grouped in 1, 3, 5, 7 etc will always look better than symmetrical plantings.

Group plants according to where they will thrive, then when they flower - always keeping in mind the mature size of the plants.

Your planting style is very much a matter of taste and there are lots of different approaches to choose from. The flamboyant borders of Waterperry Gardens or Hidcot take an enormous amount of time to keep looking as good as they do. So, if you have staff all the better! But most of us are limited in resources, and especially time. The general rule for low maintenance is to plant a lot of the same plants, rather than a few of a multitude of different varieties. Therefore, choose carefully. Once you have your groupings, you should then have a good idea of what your garden will look like in any one month. You are now ready to order your plants or take your list to a garden centre and STICK TO THE LIST…..

Did you know that 80% of plants bought by the general public from garden centres fail! They make a huge amount of profit from our lack of knowledge!

Seasons Greetings and here’s to a beautiful spring 2015!


Sarah Naybour won 5 Star awards at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2013 and 2014, and was awarded Britain’s Student Designer of the Year by the Society of Garden Designers on graduation.

She creates elegant, timeless country and contemporary urban garden spaces in Oxfordshire and London. With a fine art background, her understanding of architecture and love of good design is a hallmark of her work.


Top Image - Buxus and Curry in winter

Middle Image - Winter Fallen Berry

Bottom Image - Buxus and Curry transformed by the season


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