I think snowdrops are an essential plant for any garden. They are a woodland plant and like light in winter and shade in summer, when they are dormant, so are perfect under deciduous trees or shrubs. The bulbs should not be allowed to dry out, so they are best planted “in the green”, which means whilst they still have leaf on in early spring, but after they have finished flowering, and once the leaves have started to die down a little. If you are buying potted up snowdrops from a garden centre, you can plant them straight away as long as the ground is not frozen. Although there are many cultivars, I think the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis is as good as any. They are iconic and indispensable plants for this time of year. Wear gardening gloves when handling them as they can irritate the skin, and can cause stomach upsets if eaten.
Other ‘must have’ plants for this time of year include hellebores. There are several different hellebores, all of which flower early in the year. The one in the picture is Hellerorus orientalis which has lovely deep red/purple flowers. The “Christmas Rose” (common name) is Helleborus niger, which, despite its name doesn’t often come into flower as early as Christmas. This has white flowers. However, there are many hybrids in interesting shades of pinks, purples, whites and with speckles. (These include the ‘Brandywine Hybrids’). It is all these types of hellebore which gardeners often cut the leaves off in January.
Our native hellebore is Helleborus foetidus, otherwise known as the “stinking hellebore”, which, in fact, doesn’t smell unpleasant unless you crush the leaves. This can irritate your skin, so is not recommended without gloves, and it is also poisonous if ingested. It has attractive dark green leaves which are rather lacier and less thick and leathery than other hellebores, and lime green flowers. The cultivars Helleborus foetidus Wester Flisk Group have red edges to these flowers and red flower stems.
The other major hellebore which is grown in the UK is Helleborus argutifolius, which has thick green leaves and lighter green flowers. Hellebores like shade, and can sometimes be prone to disease in the form of unsightly black spots on the leaf, but if the affected leaves are removed, they will soon grow fresh leaves. They self seed readily and are a very useful plant for shade.
Other plants for early colour in the garden include early-flowering crocuses, such as Crocus tommasinianus, which can naturalise and form the most welcome pink-purple carpet at the end of winter, beginning of spring, winter aconites (eranthis hyemalis) and heathers, some of which need lime-free (acid) soil and some are more tolerant of lime, so make sure you buy ones that are suitable for your soil.
Amongst shrubs, Mahonias are always welcome in the winter garden, for their yellow flowers and evergreen leaves, sometimes blushed with red, though they are prickly so not to be planted near a path. Many Daphnes flower in early spring or late winter and bring with them some welcome scent, though some are not fully hardy, so, in Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties, are unlikely to survive our winters. Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is a commonly grown winter-flowering shrub with pink flowers on bare stems, and the evergreen Viburnum tinus also flowers early in the year. Witchhazels, Hamamelis have unusual and fragrant, spidery yellow or orange flowers in late winter, but they do need acid soil, so, in the Banbury area, need to be grown in ericaceous compost in pots. Hazels, particularly the corkscrew hazel Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, are surprisingly lovely in late winter, with pale yellow catkins appearing on bare stems before the leaves. Dogwoods, such as Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, if you have room for them in your garden, provide a bright attractive show of colourful winter stems, as long as you prune them in spring. Many Rubus (blackberry) cultivars also have attractive stems. They also provide berries for the birds, but can be a bit unruly, so you need the space.
We mustn’t, of course, forget evergreens, such as holly, essentials of the winter garden. Other interesting evergreens include the heavenly bamboo Nandina domestica, Yew (Taxus baccata) and box (Buxus sempervirens) which can be made into topiary, Choisya ternata, which has wonderfully fragrant foliage, bay (Laurus nobilis), Camellias (which must have acid soil), Hebes, Eleagnus, Berberis and Escallonia, to name a few.