As the nights draw in some people, myself included, start to feel a bit bereft. I miss the sunshine and the flowers. Winter can be dark and tough. Plants that flower in winter are like little pockets of sunshine. They make me smile, and we all need more joy in our lives. If you are careful with your planting you can have pockets of sunshine all through the winter.
For me November is actually the worst month as there is so little in flower and often all the autumn colour has gone. By January when the snowdrops appear I instantly feel better. There are two plants that I wouldn't be without because they offer colour in November. Coronilla valentina is from the pea family. It's a small evergreen shrub with yellow pea-like flowers- you'll see it as you come through the visitor centre on your left. It starts flowering in late October and goes right through to the summer. I have one at home in full sun and that has not stopped flowering all year. I love its jolly yellow flowers but also the leaves are sweet too. The other is Iris unguicularis (also known as the Algerian Iris). This purply blue Iris just keeps on going. You'll have to forgive its tatty leaves, although these can be cut down to the base when they look brown and tidied up.
Autumn is a great time to plant 'winter sunshine' in the form of bulbs. I'm obsessed with bulbs. I plant more and more every year. I love the perennial species Tulips as they return year after year whereas other tulips almost need to be treated as annuals as they get smaller and weaker every year. Try Tulips turkestanica, T. saxatilis, or T. spregeri. I like to plant Tulipa sylvestris in the grass- you can see this in Rook wood. Not only is this one perennial but it slowly spreads too.
I know some people worry about growing bulbs within their borders for fear of constantly digging them up, I don't worry, just replant them if it happens. They are pretty robust. But if it does bother you, fill some pots. Many of us don't venture far into our gardens in the depths of winter so pots can be a good way of bringing the colour closer to you. Surround your front and back door with pots of spring bulbs and they will welcome you home every day.
I love how dinky some of the spring bulbs can be- Scilla, Puschkinia, Iris reticulata- such small but welcome bursts of energy. These are stunning in post so that you can get closer to them. I love crocuses and planted lots at home but then realised that most of the time when they open up to flowers I am at work and miss it all, so I shall have to plant more at Hestercombe.
We have been adding bulbs to the grass areas in Rook wood and hope that this will keep improving. Flowering bulbs are a great early source of nectar for insects and so have a wildlife value too. In spring our orchard is full of Daffodils and over time we would like to add more early bulbs to this area and then maybe some Camasia to extend the season. Even if you only have a small lawn area at home it is well worth adding some bulbs to it, Even if it's just a patch of snowdrops to let you know that spring is on the way. Use some of the smaller species of other bulbs and add anemones and winter aconites. These are over before you need to start cutting the lawn again so they don't interfere.
If bulbs aren't your thing there are loads of brilliant winter flowering shrubs and many have the most amazing scents. If you have room try winter flowering honeysuckle or Hamamelis (witch hazel). Both of these fill the shrubbery with scent. Also try Sarcococca, also known as Sweet Box for its amazing scent from small almost non descript flowers. For a fantastic February scent take a leaf out of Jekyll's book and plant Chimonanthus (winter sweet) this is the shrub that is planted all around the walls at the rotunda- cleverly planted here so that the walls trap the scent. The red and orange stems of naked Dogwoods are fantastic. I like Cornus 'Midwinter fire' . It's a fantastic backdrop to a border and works well brought into the house and displayed in vases too. We have Cornus alba 'Sibirica' in the shrubbery and we have underplanted with snowdrops . It looks so dramatic.
There is a great choice of plants to help give you winter cheer and it is worth visiting some winter gardens for inspiration. Try the winter garden at RHS Rosemoor for ideas. Winter planting can make you think differently. With fewer leaves , trees with great bark are more interesting such as the flaky stems of Acer griseum, or the reptilian look of snake bark maple, and the Birches with their white and pinky stems. Winter can be long so it is well worth adding as much beauty to your outdoor space as you can. I know I couldn't be without my 'pockets of sunshine'.