There are lots of plants to choose from for the role of frontline fillers.
Ideally, the plant should be low-growing so that it does not obscure plants behind; it should be ground-hugging and capable of spreading slowly to fill space and, preferably, it should be evergreen. If it flowers well, and most do, it will bring its own contribution at some stage of the growing season.
One of the best plants for this purpose is the elephant ears, or bergenia, with large, rounded, leathery leaves.
It has flowers from early spring in shades of pink or purple-pink and there are white forms too. The large leaves are durable, evergreen and very good at suppressing weeds. The grassy foliage of the sea-pink, or thrift, is bright and cheery in winter and has a presence much greater than its size. The pink pompom flowers appear in early summer, but the tight mass of foliage is just as valuable for the winter season.
Dianthus or pinks of various kinds are very good too. These make flat mounds of spiky grey-blue evergreen foliage. There are small-growing alpine kinds which are very low and probably too low for most uses as they can be swamped by bigger kinds. But the border carnations are quite robust and nicely fill out the gaps at the front of a border. The flowers are quite prolific and usually in shades of red, pink or white. The plants can get a bit straggly after a few years and cuttings need to be taken.
London pride makes a small rosette of evergreen leaves, held close to the soil and over time spreading slowly outwards in a mat of rosettes. These are tightly held and very good at suppressing weeds for such a diminutive plant. The rosettes send up frothy flower heads or slender stems. This one is also shade tolerant.
Yellow alyssum, arabis, aubrieta and iberis are all related, being members of the cabbage family. The first has masses of yellow flowers; arabis is mostly white or pink; aubrieta is usually purple and iberis is pearly white. All of these make mounds, some higher than others, aubrieta being the lowest. All are long-lived and thrive in well-drained soil at the front of a border.
Celmisia makes tall rosettes of grey, evergreen leaves. Over a period of years it makes a tight clump but covers a close area. It has tall white daisies in summer but is really grown for its lovely silvery leaves, which are especially noteworthy in winter. Lamb’s ear is another good silvery plant, more of a spreader this one, it will cover quite a sizeable spot, if there is space, and sends up attractive silvery spikes with purple flowers.
African daisy or osteospermum is a great low filler covered with pink or white daisies in early summer and still producing some colour late into the year. The foliage is evergreen, although it can be touched by frost. In the milder areas, it makes a tight green mat. Diascia is a low-growing mat, often suckering, with purple or pink flowers. It is persistent and robust even though it is small.
Several kinds of geranium are suitable but the best, which is semi-evergreen, is Geranium macrorhizum. This is brilliant at suppressing weeds and flowers nicely in summer. There are lots of other kinds, such as Euphorbia myrsinites with blue-green fleshy leaves and echeveria, with fleshy rosettes and showy orange flowers. Any of these plants can be planted at this time of year, and it is surprising the effect that they will have right away.
Storing winter vegetables
Swede turnips can be left in the ground until used, or they can be lifted and stored like carrots or beetroot. The traditional way to store root vegetables was in a pit of soil layered over straw, and it is very successful, though perhaps a little more effort than people might want to undertake. Storage in a cool shed – ideally with an earthen floor for some moisture – is very successful. Concrete floors can taint vegetables if the concrete is new and some barrier should be laid over it, such as straw of peat. Control rodent pests.
Fruit, vegetables and herbs
Dig over vegetable ground, removing old crops. Store vegetables that can be over-wintered in a pit or cool shed. Control weeds over areas of ground that will be dug over later. Spread compost before digging in. Plant new fruit trees and bushes.
The lawn moss will grow strongly until early May when organic solutions can be used. Occasional mowing in winter is a good idea if the soil is not too wet. Grass tends to grow a little over winter and an occasional mowing will keep it right.
Trees, shrubs and roses
Planting of bare-root deciduous trees, hedging and shrubs can continue during dry weather. Don’t plant into very wet ground or planting holes that fill with water, because it will cause the roots to rot. All kinds of pot-grown trees and shrubs can also be planted, of course. Check young trees are securely staked.
Lift dahlias, begonias and gladiolus in frosty localities to prevent damage, or cover them with soil in milder areas. Spring bulbs should be in the ground by now but should be planted if not. Tulips and alliums can be planted late. Bedding plants for spring colour should be put in now, if not already done.
Greenhouse and house plants
Remove all debris and dead plants and ventilate occasionally. Water very little to reduce the risk of grey mould disease. Set up a greenhouse frost protection heater to protect tender plants, such as geraniums, lantana or fuchsias.