I know - winter is approaching, and you're thinking, "What can I buy as a quick colour fix for the garden? Just to cheer it up a bit, you know - stop it looking tired and scruffy. Maybe cram some colour in a few tubs to show willing with the neighbours."
It's understandable. Local garden centres, DIY stores, and even online nurseries have created a nation that is almost obsessed with the concept of a garden needing 'colour' above everything else. And you will all too easily find a ready supply of winter bedding that's been force grown to try and cheer you up. But before you spend pennies on pansies and polyanthus, consider this.
A winter colour fix is over all too quickly and will ultimately leave you unsatisfied. At the first sign of frost, pansies and polyanthus will begin to look sad. In true winter conditions, i.e. snow, heavy frost, strong morning light, they will look a little incongruous. What you actually need to do is consider your garden as a long term design project, not as a series of quick - and ultimately expensive - instant fixes. In winter, your garden needs grasses, trees and seedheads, which will come alive with shine and light.
Nature is the best garden designer there is, and replicating nature's habits will give you vision beyond colour to structure, and will give you a stunning designer winter garden. In winter, gardens become incredible ready-made canvases for showcasing texture, and dynamic intricate structures which nature has in abundance. You can see the bone structure of the garden which is then accentuated by frost crystals and winter sun. If you've filled your garden with winter bedding from the garden centre, and not focussed on its architectural dimensions through planting shrubs, trees and grasses, you will be missing a sophisticated and important dimension of the winter garden.
That's not to say that colour does not feature in a winter garden. In fact, incredible colours are found in structural planting. Plant winter cornus for fire colours. Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' does exactly what it says - with stems that graduate from rich yellows to bright reds along the stems. The bark of the Prunus serrula, will challenge most flowers for winter illumination. And supposedly 'dead' seedheads, on mass, can become jewels of the garden in the low light of the winter sunshine.
Consider your garden as a symphony orchestra where different instruments take the lead at different times. Winter is the time for shrubs, trees and early flowering bulbs to take centre stage, and come the summer, they once again will have their limelight stolen by the more glamorous annual, perennial and bedding flowers. The beauty of the orchestra however, is that every instrument has its place, its own unique beauty, and it takes all that individuality, blending harmoniously together, to create a sum that is greater than its parts. And so it is with the garden.
Elspeth Briscoe is an internet entrepreneur turned garden designer, and Managing Director of MyGardenSchool.