Top 10 AGM-winning plants for structure in winter

Plantsman Graham Rice chooses his top 10 winners of the RHS Award of Garden Merit for creating structure in the garden in winter

With flowers relatively sparse, structure is an important element in the winter garden. In many gardens this begins – and ends – with evergreens and, in particular, hedges and topiary in box and yew, plus perhaps dogwoods with their coloured stems.
But so many other plants, trees and shrubs and even perennials, have a boldness of shape or an intricacy of pattern to ensure that when there are few flowers to enjoy, our gardens can still interest and delight us. These RHS Award of Garden Merit winning plants all provide attractive winter structural interest.

H1 - H7 indicated the new hardiness ratings

Full details of hardiness ratings (510kB pdf)


Acer negundo ‘Winter Lightning’

This rarely seen form of the box elder is naturally a vigorous tree, but is best treated in the same way as the dogwoods and willows with coloured stems. If you cut it back almost to the ground each spring, it will surge into production in winter with a bold mass of stout yellow stems that shine in the snow. It also features yellow autumn leaf colour. 2m when pruned (6½ft). H6.

Bergenia purpurascens var. delavayi

Combining colour, shape and a strong winter presence, there are many newer bergenias to be found in nurseries – but this old favourite still 'wows' us with its bold form, its vivid colouring, its cold weather resilience and its adaptability. From November until spring, when the pink flowers open, it’s invaluable. Try interplanting with snowdrops. 30cm (12in). H5.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Grayswood Ghost’

With its distinctive upright white branches, ‘Grayswood Ghost’ gleams across the garden even on the dullest of days. Quick growing, and showing its white bark on young shoots, it is effective while still a small tree, and is stunning underplanted with my other choice, Bergenia purpurascens var. delavayi. There’s also yellow autumn leaf colour and spring catkins. Wash it with soapy water in November. 9m (29½ft). H6.

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’

With the frost riming its bare contorted branches, the twisted hazel is a lovely winter shrub and much less vigorous and more manageable than the untwisted form. Its leaves are contorted too and if the occasional shoot is cut out for Christmas arrangements, those remaining show up more effectively against a bright blue sky. The red-leaved form, ‘Red Majestic’, is also an AGM plant. 3m (10ft). H6.

Mahonia × media ‘Lionel Fortescue’

These bold evergreens create a forceful presence all year round, especially when they’re in their more upright phase, and before they mature into a rounded shape. The double rows of holly-like leaves, with their red midribs, are always imposing, and they support snow well – plus, of course, there’s the long strings of yellow flowers in November and December. 2m (6½ft). H4.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Septemberrot’

As the flower heads of this Miscanthus fade to tawny silver, the foliage passes through reddish tints, to biscuit brown, then drops away to leave the upright stems standing out against blue sky or an evergreen background. There are then months of winter interest to come before those tassels are finally blown away by spring gales. At that point, cut everything back hard to the ground. 2.4m (8ft). H6.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

It might seem unusual to recommend one of the very few plants with genuinely black foliage for its winter value, but the gloss of the slender leaves and the rippling mass they create as the plant steadily spreads at the front of the border creates emphatic winter impact. Interplanting with snowdrops or scillas, or a few artfully placed heads of Allium cristophii, complete the picture. 15cm (6in). H5.

Phormium ‘Sundowner’

Modern phormiums may tend to be small and neat, but are still a presence in winter. But for major winter impact, choose one of the older, upright, more substantial cultivars such as ‘Sundowner’. The bronzey-olive leaves are striped in pink and red towards the edges, especially when they first emerge and, although the tips can become ragged, this does not detract from the winter effect. 2.4m (8ft). H3.

Phyllostachys nigra

There are few bamboos that are not only reliably well behaved, but also effective through the winter in borders or in (large) pots. In their second year the upright canes of Phyllostachys nigra mature to dusky black, sometimes shining jet black – a rare colouring and all the more visible now some of the leaves have fallen. The best colour comes on plants out of full sun that never dry out. 3m (10ft). H5.

Salix × sepulcralis ‘Erythroflexuosa’

Another with attractively twisted stems, this time in a noticeably orange shade (the leaves are twisted too), the distinctive form and colouring of this small tree or large shrub stands out against a blue winter sky or pale clouds. Often rather lax in growth, stems can be cut to add style to Christmas arrangements – and may well root in the water. 5m (16ft). H5.


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