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Q&A: colour, veg and biodiversity in your winter garden

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 08:45 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Many users on the Gardening message board have been seeking out and discussing ideas for adding colour to their gardens this winter so here are some further ideas from Jim to inspire you. He also answers some questions that were posted on the message board.

Winter and spring colour for tubs and baskets

primula vulgaris


There is still time to plant up a few containers to give pleasure through the dark days of winter and in to spring.  I tend to use dwarf winter and spring flowering heaths and heathers as a basis, coupled with some small-leaved ivies.  Young plants in 7 or 9 cm pots are readily available at this time.  When it is time to change over to summer flowering plants, these can be planted out in the garden.  Some ivy cultivars make excellent groundcover.

I would leaven that with a selection of winter flowering pansies or some of the range from the primula family, some are in flower already and will continue to do so through till May 2011.

Finally, to give the displays a real ‘lift’ how about a few miniature bulbs.  My own favourites are the small cyclamineus narcissi like Jack Snipe, Jenny, Little Witch or Jetfire. None of these mentioned will grow taller than about 30cm ( 12 inches in old money!).

Now, to your questions...


from Matthew Valentine
I live in Thames Valley and have a few astrantia romas that I'm thinking of dividing to fill a few spaces. Is the end of October too late, especially considering we've already had frosts?


In my view, the short answer to your question Matthew is ‘yes’. Spring is undoubtedly the favoured time – even in the Thames Valley!’  I should add that my first ever job south of the border was on the bonnie banks of the River Loddon, your neck of the woods, where I learned that you have a much longer growing season than we do in Scotland, even so, I suggest you leave the job to spring, when the first buds are beginning to show.


from Bluebell_Mel
I bought a raised 1000x760x800 vegetable planter earlier this year which sits on my front drive and is north facing. I'd like to make use of it over the winter and grow veg in it but have absolutely no idea what to plant in it as I've never grown winter veg.
Could you give me some suggestions on what to plant that I'll be able to grow and harvest over the winter time. Would like to grow garlic as well if possible. I have grown Swiss chard, carrots and lettuce in the planter this year and still have some chard left.


Greetings Bluebell Mel, I am going to use your query to make a basic general point and that is, it is useful for me and others in the same boat, to know in which part of the country the questioner lives. You could be on the sunny coast of south Devon or half way up a Grampian mountain!   In other words, knowing the location often helps to direct the answer to a question.

To your problem then, it is getting a bit late to be sowing and/or planting in the open. I’m sure you will be aware that the days are shortening, the light can be of poor quality for long periods and the ambient temperatures are slowly drifting downwards. Sowing and planting out doors in these circumstances is not recommended BUT, if you were able to cover your planter with a tent of sorts, using envirofleece or even stout clear polythene there are one or two things you might try.  Garden centres in your area may still have a selection of vegetable plants on sale that are suitable for planting now. My first thought is spring cabbage and secondly winter salads.  I would certainly find a corner for some parsley plants and by all means plant your garlic; this is the right time for that job.   


from tattiebogle
I would like to know what plants I can grow to help wildlife through the cold weather. I was thinking in particular about flowers, for example I know dandelions are quite important because they provide nectar early in the season, but I don't want a garden full of them! What early flowering garden flowers would provide food for insects?


Well Tattiebogle, I wonder where you come from?  Your question could take a wee while to answer because I immediately think of the current buzz-word – biodiversity. If you work towards having a well-stocked garden with all year round interest, you will have done your bit to provide for a good range of wildlife including invertebrates. That IS biodiversity in action.  With the exception of aliens like the New Zealand Flatworm, our native fauna have developed a rhythm of life, which for many includes hibernation in the winter...  As the garden awakes however, there is a host of plants that will provide sustenance including nectar for bumble bees - various flower bulb species, fruit trees, willows, rhododendrons, cotoneasters, gorse, forget-me-not, daisy, dead-nettle, pansies, primulas, red campion  to name but a few. 


from rockwell
The leaves on my sprouts are lacy. Some of the sprouts have small circular holes. I think there are slugs about but I can't think they're responsible for the leaf damage. The plants are under nets. Any suggestions please?


I have a mental checklist with regard to this question which is especially useful when there is no physical or photographic evidence to hand. First – pigeons, but your plants are netted, I cross that one out. Second – slugs, the likeliest culprits and Thirdly – flea beetle but in my experience they tend to be more damaging early in the season but holes created by them though small at the time are regular in shape and as the leaf stretches, the damaged tissue falls out, the edges of the holes turn brown.

My instinct is to stick with slugs but to see them feeding, have a look after dark on a calm, damp evening, taking a torch with you to spot the critters!  If you prefer not to use slug baits, try the ‘slug pub’ traps with a spot of John Smith’s Best as the lure.

Jim McColl presents BBC Scotland's The Beechgrove Garden.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's always nice to have a garden especially when you work so hard at it. I always like to add a little color to the mix as well and daylilies make a great companion plant for the garden. A little known fact is that the daylily flower is edible so it makes a great garnishment for a fresh salad.

  • Comment number 2.

    I enjoyed that comment about the Day lily, what a wonderful genus it is and in recent times there have been some stunning introductions to the range. I like yellow flowered 'Corky' with the petioles and base of the outside of the petals dark brownish. The colour range was dominated by yellow at one time but it has improved, I like the bright red 'Stafford' which has a yellow centre.
    I would not normally turn to the flower garden for salad ingredients but I was dared on a live broadcast to munch a day lily flower and I'm still here to prove it - yes, quite edible and it certainly brightens up the salad bowl but I prefer to see my Day Lilies in the flower border. Ever tasted 'Nippy Biscuits?

  • Comment number 3.

    Nippy Biscuits? Does it have daylilies in them? If so send me the recipe. Daylilies have come a long way in the last 20 years with exotic edges and colours. Today there are 68,046 daylily types or cultivars to pick from. Finding the right daylily for your garden border starts by looking through daylily images galleries. I wonder what daylilies will look like in another 20 years.


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