There’s a small group of shrubs that have evolved to flower now, in the depths of winter, so as to catch the attentions of the very few insects that are out and about. The pollinator pond may be tiny right now but these plants are the biggest fish in it.
None is better than winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima. It is a messy shrub but that is forgiven for its flowers and haunting scent.
Tiny, ivory yellow and carried on its bare, woody stems (although in mild areas it will be almost evergreen), the blooms would scarcely be noticed in the hurly-burly of a May garden but they earn pride of place in winter.
Monty Don explores the small group of shrubs that flower in the depths of winter, as to catch the attentions of very few insects. Pictured: Monty with Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’
The flowers start in December and continue into March, but January is their month and I always try to have a sprig or two in a tiny vase to fill the kitchen with their sweet scent.
Winter honeysuckle will grow happily in dry shade and does not need feeding or rich soil, as this will only encourage a mass of foliage at the expense of flowers.
I planted wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, in a container this summer, which has not yet flowered at the time of writing – but it can take a few years to establish, so I have high hopes.
Q When is the best time to trim my two-year-old lemon tree? It has about ten ripe lemons on it.
Diana Stone, Suffolk
A Lemons can be pruned hard in spring, and a young tree like yours should be pruned to a good shape early. Aim to have plenty of space between the branches to allow light and air in. Remove the fruit when ripe, as these will inhibit new growth and flower formation, and feed weekly with liquid seaweed or a tomato feed.
Q My box hedging is too high and wide. When is the best time to prune it?
Alan Leonard, West Sussex
A In spring, as it’s beginning to show new signs of growth. Box can be cut back as hard as you like. If the hedge is substantial, make this a two-stage process, over a couple of years. Cut back one side of the hedge right to the stem, and do the other side in a year or two.
Q When is it best to cut back a magnolia tree? It distresses them, but it is necessary.
Anne Simpson, C. Durham
A Large magnolias dislike being pruned, but the best time is early to mid-summer, after flowering. Do as little as possible, and spread it across two years.
Write to Monty Don at Weekend, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT or email [email protected] Please include your full name and address. We regret Monty can’t reply to letters personally.
Wintersweet produces a magical fragrance from its tiny, egg yolk-yellow flowers, which have a scarlet interior base to each petal. The scent lasts much longer in a cold room.
This tends to be true of all winter-flowering shrubs, which have not evolved to need heat to draw out their fragrance. Wintersweet is quite tender, which is why I am growing it in a container so I can move it into the sun and out of the cold winds.
It can be trained to make a (scrawny) climber on a sheltered, sunny wall, and in many ways it is best grown like this, with a clematis using it for support in the summer. It grows best on well-drained soil and is very happy on chalk or limestone.
There are a number of viburnums that offer winter colour and scent. I grow the evergreen Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’, which has clusters of pink buds that open to small, white, star-shaped flowers in late winter.
These are followed by dark-blue berries in late summer. Adaptable and easy to grow, it tolerates full sun through to shade, as well as exposed positions.
V. x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ has pink flowerheads made of florets of tiny individual flowers on bare branches that can start appearing in autumn and last through to March; ‘Charles Lamont’ is also pink, while ‘Deben’ is almost white. V. farreri has a good fragrance and is best outside against a warm wall that will trap its scent. The species flowers are white tinged with pink, whereas V. f. ‘Candidissimum’ is pure white.
Like Viburnum ‘Eve Price’, mahonia is a very fragrant evergreen. Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ will grow to a substantial (and very prickly) shrub, measuring 2sq m given space and time.
The first to bloom, however, is M. x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’, which will draw all the bees to its upright lemon flowers, which are strongly scented of lily of the valley.
‘Winter Sun’ is smaller than either ‘Charity’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’ and also has deliciously scented flowers. M. x media will grow to 1.5-2m in time but can be pruned back as is convenient.
It is an excellent plant for an awkward corner as, like all mahonias, it thrives in dry shade.
MONTY’S PLANT OF THE WEEK: WINTER ACONITE (Eranthis hyemalis)
Monty chose winter aconites as this week’s plant, revealing those grown from a tuber are best planted as young plants
The wonderful yellow buttercup petals are starting to appear on winter aconites, which grow from a tuber but are best planted as young plants either now or in the weeks after flowering has finished.
The flowers open only in full sun so plant where they’ll receive at least some sunshine; they’re often positioned around the base of deciduous trees and are happy there as long as it’s not too dry.
‘Guinea Gold’ flowers a little later than the common aconite, and produces a more egg-yolk orange shade of flower with a dramatically contrasting bronzed fringe.
THIS WEEK’S JOB: SOW SWEET PEA SEEDS
Sowing now will allow your sweet pea plants to develop strongly, and flower more and for longer than if left until spring.
Sow three seeds per 7.5cm pot – just push them into peat-free compost, water well and place in a frost-free, light place to germinate. Plant out in late April or May.