The latest of all of autumn’s ornamental garden glories are the berries – now exposed in their stark beauty by the bare stems naked of leaves, eager birds will find their fuel amongst the hedgerow plants. We are all familiar with the red berries of the holly plant but there are many other hues to play with when planting for a winter interest garden. Most berried plants tend to be deciduous, losing their leaves in winter, and are larger shrubs or trees, so will need plenty of space and light to do well, plus a good amount of moisture in the summer to ensure plump glossy fruits. Most garden or ornamental berries are not edible, to us, but do provide a valuable source of food and sustenance for wildlife, as well as adding interest to the garden and to flower arrangements.
Some species, such as Gaultheria procumbens or winterberry, a plump pink berry with a white flesh, have medicinal properties – this berry is where the active ingredients for deep heat cream comes from, you’ll instantly recognise the smell if you crush one of the berries. It’s a dwarf evergreen plant with a red tinge to the leaves, and is extremely pretty in window boxes, mixed pots or even a hanging basket for the winter season.
For interesting colour, not a lot beats Callicarpa – A non-descript green plant up until early November, whereupon it drops it’s leaves and reveals bunches of small, bright purple berries. It has delicate stem structure, so is best grown against a fence or a wall, and it can thrive in medium light, so east or north facing positions can be favourable.
Symphoricarpus, or Snowberry has white, plump berries, and also grows in low light conditions – it can be a tall plant if left to it’s own devices, but has fairly fragile stems so benefits from a prune every other spring to keep it in order – during the summer it has rounded small green leaves, it’s flowers are fairly non-descript and short lived though – it’s beauty is in it’s berry stage.
The Viburnum genus is a wide one, with both evergreen and deciduous species with winter interest – Evergreen viburnums, Viburnum tinus and davidii, produce clusters of brilliant blue berries. Viburnum tinus is a tall and dark green leaved evergreen shrub, which is easy to grow and produces clusters of white flowers in late summer, which become the berries. The short, dwarf compact form of davidii has much longer leaves, and only gets to 1m or so in height, making it a perfect tough and forgiving plant for the front of a border, or smaller front garden where visibility is a factor.
I find it excellent to use as a cut stem at this time of the year in flower bouquets and arrangements as it instantly gives you that fruitful autumnal feel. Viburnum bodnantense is a late winter flowering plant, coming into bloom in late January, and is one of the deciduous species. It has a compact shape, 3m wide or so, and explodes in small pink blossoms in the depth of winter.
Holly or Ilex plants produce the familiar red berries of Christmas. You do need a male and a female plant in fairly near proximity for berry production, and let the plant mature before cutting too many stems – it’s slow growing and needs fertile soil and consistent moisture to grow well. It’s excellent grown as a natural, impenetrable fence or border plant, and the variegated species brighten dark areas. The strong stemmed bushes can be tricky to grow but do grow best in places with damp, cloudy winters and acidic soils, so perform very well in Ireland’s climate.
Bringing life to your apartment window boxes or hanging baskets during the winter can be tricky, it’s the lower light levels that makes growing things challenging – I find ornamental peppers in bright shades will add a welcome pop of colour and I combine them with a neutral silvery Calocephalus for a contrast – these species are grown for their larger prettier fruits, and are not edible. Celosia cristata is another cool weather bedding plant with an almost alien like flower – it can be grown indoors on a windowsill, or in a cool porch, and it is affectionately known as ‘brains’ in the flower world. Flowers are produced continually as long as you deadhead fading blooms, and can be dried and sprayed for using in Christmas flower arrangements.
For a softer look, heathers in their natural colours of pink, white and dark red with a few pots of ivy can be combined in pots or baskets, and in the spring, they can be planted out in the garden to become larger plants, making way for the summer plants.
In the season of garden planning it’s good to think of your landscape in all four seasons, winter included. Winter might be the hardest to imagine but, this time of year it’s the easiest to experience. We look for evergreen ground covers or junipers, with their little blue berries. And we’re interested in dimension, how some seed pods on long stalks collect snow or how a crab apple tree looks, its bark intriguingly coloured, with a light dusting. But mostly we look for berries, hanging like ornaments, from shrubs and climbers and trees. That’s where we find colour in winter. Shouldn’t gardens be a source of beauty in inspiration, even when the growing season is far past.