Flowers in winter
All witch hazels do best in full sun or light shade and in an acid/neutral soil, but are tolerant of alkaline soils as long as they are deep, friable and fertile (the Schurmanns have successfully used them in many of the Dublin gardens they’ve designed).
What the plant hates above all else is for its roots to be waterlogged. In wet gardens or those prone to flooding, dig in plenty of grit and plant on gently raised mounds. While the flowers themselves are remarkably resistant to cold temperatures, very young plants can be badly damaged by late frosts and cold winds, so avoid planting in frost pockets and give recently planted specimens fleece protection when required, until they are well established.
Given the witch hazel’s shallow roots, it’s also important to water young plants during any prolonged dry spells. Further protect the vulnerable root system with a mulch of leaf mould or garden compost, which should also help to keep the soil weed-free.
If at all possible, try to position your witch hazel against a backdrop of evergreen foliage and in a spot where its delicate, translucent flowers can be easily seen. And don’t be intimidated by the plant’s reputation as a large, spreading shrub; in smaller gardens it can be kept relatively compact with an annual spring prune, which will also encourage it to be more floriferous (after flowering, cut the previous year’s growth back to two buds). The plant can also be successfully grown as a fan-trained specimen against a wall.
At a push it may even be kept in a large tub or container, as long as you’re prepared to be ultra-diligent as regards regularly watering, pruning and feeding. It seems a small price to pay for such luminous winter beauty.
Flowers in Winter – a special day at Mount Venus Nursery highlighting winter-flowering shrubs and trees is at Walled Garden, Tibradden, Mutton Lane, Dublin 16, February 9th, 11am-5pm. See mountvenus nursery.com
A few places are still available on Jimi Blake’s Plantspersons’ Course, which starts on February 17th (12 classes, one Sunday per month, €74 per class, see huntingbrook.com)