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January/February 2013

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Early bulbs, sweet box, daphne and winter dogwoods

Early flowering bulbs create a great impact in January and February, but many other plants that come into their own at this time of year make a valuable contribution to the garden. One of my favourite shrubs, or small tree, is the witch hazel. This tree is completely hardy and, in January, it is covered with scented flowers resembling bunches of yellow or orange ribbons, regardless of the weather. It has the added advantage of good autumn colour. Last year I bought two more kinds to replace tender shrubs that did not survive the previous winter and, at the moment, I am reaping the benefit.

Another shrub that flowers in January is the compact pink Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer'. Its name is rather deceptive as it was given because it used to be forced under glass by nurserymen to bloom early for the Christmas flower market. Most of the early-flowering, or scented, shrubs that I grow are positioned near the house or drive. Otherwise their delightful attributes would pass unnoticed.

One of the most highly scented winter flowering shrubs is sarcococca, sweet box or Christmas box. This is a small evergreen woodland shrub that is happy growing under trees and will tolerate dry conditions. Its flowers are insignificant but its foliage is excellent for flower arranging and its fragrance memorable.

The mahonia genus contains many of my favourite shrubs. Many of them flower throughout the winter. Most species thrive in woodland conditions, but they will tolerate sun if the soil is not too dry. Mahonia japonica ‘Bealei' usually starts into flower in late autumn, followed by Mahonia lomarifolia and Mahonia x media varieties. They have handsome sculptured foliage and yellow scented flowers. They are surprisingly easy to propagate from semi-ripe cuttings in late summer or autumn.

Outside my front door I have Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill', which produces intensely fragrant purple pink flowers in winter. It is borderline hardy, but fortunately managed to survive during the bad winter, presumably helped by its position against the wall of the house. It flowers usually in January and Daphne mezereum flowers in February with rich purple flowers before coming into leaf.

The colourful carpet of winter heathers is at its best at the moment. Heathers are invaluable as they withstand our western Atlantic gales and high rainfall. The autumn-flowering species, Erica vagans, the Cornish heath, was decimated by the last cold winter, but the others luckily survived untouched. In the bog garden, Cornus siberica, Cornus stolonifera and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter fire' are all showing off their red, orange, and yellow winter shoots. They tolerate the very wet conditions and bring life to the whole area.

In the woodland, the hellebores are the earliest of the perennials to create a display. The first to flower is Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, though many of the Lenten roses and the fetid hellebore flower almost at the same time. They appreciate good conditions and perform better if I add a mulch in autumn to the poor soil. I was fortunate to acquire a large amount of horse manure from a neighbour and I shall be able to be far more generous in feeding my plants in the next month or so.

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