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Plants that thrive in the cold

Johannesburg – Freezing nights are around the corner. What should you be planting in cold gardens across Gauteng? Within weeks, frosty gardens will adopt an early winter mantle of white frost creating a unique beauty.

The value of evergreen shrubs is evident in winter gardens where they give permanence and wind protection. Conifers are used to good effect in cold winter gardens, with some changing their coats of summer green to gold and bronze.

Also undergoing a leaf-colour change are members of the nandina family. Their fern-like green leaves become deep red as temperatures drop. The indigenous dogwood (Rhamnus prinoides) is frost-hardy with shiny evergreen leaves and small red berries that can be grown as a tree or clipped as a screen.


When many plants in the garden are still enjoying their winter sleep, the first buds of hellebores thrust their way through the cold earth. Despite the delicate appearance of the flowers, hellebores are able to withstand even snow.

The first hellebores to flower are Christmas roses, Helleborus niger, followed by H. argutifolius. This hellebore is far more dramatic in the size of the spiny leaves and the apple-green flowers held in clusters on strong, branched stems. Following these early hellebores and the one most frequently seen in our gardens, is the Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis. This long-lived, evergreen perennial has fan-shaped leaves.

The slightly nodding flowers of apple-green, pink, wine or creamy-white, many with delicate spotting, remain on the plant for weeks. Hellebores need rich, but well drained soil, and a position where they get dappled shade in summer. Do not disturb plants unless absolutely necessary.

Early colour

Bulbs provide much of the early colour in the winter garden. Among the first flower buds to appear is the snowflake (leucojum) with dainty white bells, each petal with a green dot at the tip.

Early narcissi, with their clusters of white and cream scented blooms and single-flowered jonquils, soon join the snowflakes and glorious golden daffodils. The fairy primula (Primula malacoides) turns shady parts of the garden into a fairyland of white, mauve and purple.

Camellia (Camellia japonica) hybrids begin flowering in late autumn and continue into early spring. Growth habit can be upright and bushy or slender, while others are more compact. Single, semi-double and double flowers of white, pink or red, some speckled or striped, are showy against the glossy green leaves. A position in dappled shade and a rich, moisture retentive soil suits them.

Indigenous colour

The warmth of orange and red is particularly welcome in the winter garden and the tubular, waxy flowers of aloes add splashes of vivid colour in the landscape. With their dramatic form and flowers, aloes are best grown among rocky outcrops or in rockeries. As well as the many attractive species, there are exciting new aloes that have extended the colour range.

Winter-flowering erica, pincushion and protea flowers bring nectar-feeding birds to gardens that experience light frost. The soil should not be disturbed around their root area and they must be regularly watered in winter.


Purple and pink cinerarias and orange and yellow Iceland poppies planted in autumn will be putting on an early show, but if you didn’t get around to planting annuals in autumn, don’t despair. Garden centres carry a wide selection of annuals in flower.

Use annuals boldly, use them creatively, and use them along paths, in pots, hanging baskets and window boxes, retaining walls and rockeries, on patios and around seating areas to colour your winter garden. Plant stocks to scent the garden, and orange calendulas and blue cornflowers to add splashes of colour in the vegetable patch.

No winter garden is complete without pansies and violas that come in many colours and are perfect in pots. Also for pots and in mass plantings is cold-tolerant ornamental kale with ruffled leaves in white, pink, purple and green.


Grasses play an important part in gardens by introducing movement and sound, as well as maintaining an ecosystem. While their role is to bind the soil, provide a habitat for insects, and seed and nesting material for birds, those that are non-invasive and ornamental have become invaluable in new garden styles.

Ornamental grasses and sedges with plumes and curls of straw, cinnamon and bronze that become almost translucent when backlit, introduce softness and movement in the winter garden. Consult your local garden centre for indigenous and exotic ornamental grasses suitable for your area.


Indoor pot plants should not be placed too close to windows where cold night air can damage leaves.

Thursday is International Day for Biological Diversity. Encourage biodiversity in your garden and reconnect with nature to benefit birds, butterflies and insects by planting trees, shrubs and climbers to provide food and shelter. A small pond and birdbaths will encourage wildlife. Ponds should have sloping sides so that microfauna can climb out if they fall in and birds can wade into the water.

Encourage pollinators by growing flowers that produce nectar and pollen for bees and butterflies in containers. Grow pots of vegetables and herbs among flowers to encourage beneficial insects for pollination. Plant up species that are able to withstand dry conditions, or place them in containers to conserve water.

Instead of planting a hedge of a single variety, plant a mixed hedge to provide year-round food, shelter and nesting for birds. Turn garden clippings and vegetables into compost to help reduce methane gas produced in landfills. Conserve and make use of all available space and natural resources, use organic mulches to nourish the soil, and collect and store rainwater off roofs in tanks.

Saturday Star