How to brighten up your winter garden

Bring colour . . . even on the darkest day

The shortest, darkest day is nearly here, but out in the garden there are a surprising number of plants in flower.

Yellow jasmine and sturdy mahonia are among the best and their sulphurous tones are just the thing to cut through the gloom and lift the spirits when the sky is grey.

Winter plants are a hardy breed and most of them survive because they produce a substance like anti-freeze that prevents their cells from being destroyed when the temperature plummets. It's what allows snowdrops to flourish and winter flowering cherry trees to carry blossom in the teeth of bitter gales.

Not all plants possess this resilience and that means they will need protection if they are to survive until spring.

Tender perennials such as pelargoniums should already be enjoying warmer conditions indoors and dahlia tubers not already lifted are now in danger of being killed off by frost.

Bay trees and banana plants that are too large to move into a cool greenhouse or frost-free shed, should be wrapped in several layers of horticultural fleece that covers, not only the foliage, but any container in which they are growing, otherwise the frost can penetrate the pot and kill off the roots.

Meanwhile don't worry if pansies and violas planted as winter bedding stop flowering for a time, they are simply waiting for the temperature to rise a few degrees and when that happens they'll start performing again.

Winter bedding is a useful way of adding a bit of cheerful colour to the garden at this time of the year, but there are others. Aconites are appearing now and they will cover the ground in bright yellow blooms for many weeks.

Small daffodils too can be persuaded to bloom early and the large trumpet daffodil 'Rijenveld's Early Sensation' can flower as early as December.

You can speed up its arrival by growing some of the bulbs in pots and keeping them in a cool greenhouse until the shoots start to appear.

Lenten roses are seldom in flower during Lent, instead these lovely white hellebores tend to wait until after Christmas to put in an appearance, but by then their larger cousins, both Hellebore foetidus and the Corsican hellebore, which is bigger still, will have beaten them to it. Both have green flowers that seem impervious to filthy weather and their leathery leaves make a bold presence.

Plant them in a favourable spot and they will produce seedlings that can, over the years, turn one plant into a sizeable presence in the garden.

Agnes Stevenson