‘Islands of optimism’: the cheerful Helleborus orientalis. Photograph: Allan Bergmann Jensen /Alamy
I have just been back to the studio garden to look at the progress. It is time to cut back the spent growth from last year, which is suddenly looking tatty alongside the fresh new growth of the snowdrops. The hellebores were up and in flower a whole month early in January and now they are at their best with a wide reach and flowers hovering.
Tilt the pendant heads of the luminous yellows and they reveal plum dark nectaries, a delicate speckling across the whites that concentrates to the centre, and those with the picotee edges look as if they have had their rims dipped in ink. I picked one of each to float them in a bowl on the kitchen table and enjoy these little islands of optimism.
Our garden here in Waterloo is small, but has yielded other treasures for a scented posy. You need only pick a sprig of winter box and it will perfume a room. I took cuttings of “Dragon Gate” from my old garden in Peckham and the plants now sit by the gate to welcome you. This is a fine-leaved form of Sarcococca ruscifolia and I like it for its delicacy and grace, the plant being lighter in character than its parent and good for small spaces as a consequence.
All Sarcococca are slow growing, but in the three years here it has amassed enough volume to create a cloud of perfume when the wind is in the right direction. I would not want to be without winter box and though they dislike a windswept position they are happy in shade.
Perfume is a recurring theme among winter-flowering plants and it is worth making room for winter scent. In the far corner, again in shade and tucked away to make room for other plants to come to the fore in summer, is the Daphne “Darjeeling”. D bholua is one of the best winter-flowering shrubs. In my previous garden I grew a larger form called “Jacqueline Postill”, which you could smell at 100 paces.
D bholua is a gangly shrub and in the wild you will find it in the Himalayas nestling into scrub on the fringes of woodland. Being slender, it is easily worked into a small space and a sheltered corner with some leafmould to make it feel at home. “Darjeeling” is the very palest pink. I like this form for being the most evergreen and hardiest of the named varieties, and team it up with sweet violets at its feet. Snowdrops make a fine addition to the mix.
A garden is not complete without winter-flowering iris. We have the Algerian iris, Iris unguicularis, growing against the hottest wall. Being from dry, rocky ground in north Africa they love the heat and store all their summer energy in their rhizomes for now. “Walter Butt” is one of the best – a clear, silvery blue like a winter sky. In a cooler position we have its woodland cousin, I lazica. The flowers are a darker blue, emerging like coloured darts from low in the foliage and flinging their petals wide regardless of what the weather has to throw at them.
If you find the browning winter foliage distracting, cut the foliage of Iris unguicularis back to the base in early winter. If you decide to leave it, remember to look out for snails when the plants start flowering.