In our coastal area, February can often be the coldest month of the year, so it might not seem like a good time to plant anything. But that’s not the case. If you like to grow from seed, some early varieties of fruit, veg and flowers can be sown (probably indoors) this month to get you a head start. It’s also a good time to plant shrubs, hedges and trees, while they are still dormant and any root damage won’t do as much harm.
Plants like hardy geranium and Japanese anemone are perennials which you can plant now and which will bring colour to your summer garden for years to come. But, if you want to plant something now which will have instant impact, we’d go for a Hamamelis, commonly known as Witch hazel.
As a plant family, Hamamelis are native to North America and eastern Asia, which makes them well suited to growing in the UK’s moist, temperate climate. There are five species of Hamamelis, from the American, or common, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) to the vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis). Cultivars of Hamamelis mollis and Hamamelis x intermedia are probably most common in garden centres, both attractive and hardy varieties.
Historically, witch hazel was long used in traditional medicine to treat anything from bruises to insect bites. In fact, a quick search on the website of a well-known health shop, and there are 62 products which list witch hazel amongst their ingredients, all of them for facial or skin care. Isn’t it funny how so many traditional remedies have proven their efficacy? Fresh cut stems were also used for water divining. It is perhaps because of these traditional uses that it acquired its common name of witch hazel, although some suggest it’s the spidery flowers which look a bit like twisted witch’s hands.
Hamamelis produce yellow, orange or red attractively ‘shaggy’ flowers on bare branches in the winter or very early spring. It is often for this splash of colour when little else is flowering that gardeners value them. Just one as a specimen plant, underplanted with early bulbs, could make a real statement – and they will even grow well in a large pot with some care. Cut stems in flower will last well in a flower arrangement too.
Hamamelis flowers often have a lovely spicy or citrusy fragrance, which makes them a prime candidate for planting near a path or the back door, when you can appreciate the scent even on winter days. Witch hazels bring far more to your garden than just their welcome presence in spring, however. Their oval leaves also give great autumn colour, turning yellows and oranges before they fall.
A witch hazel can be planted between the end of October and early April (in our area), as long as the ground is not frozen or waterlogged. Find a spot that is in the sun or lightly shaded but with some protection from the coldest winds. If your soil is alkaline, you will do better planting your witch hazel in a large pot with a neutral compost rather than directly in the ground. If your soil is particularly heavy clay, dig in some organic matter to improve the drainage before planting. Although they are quite slow growing, think about a position which will give your witch hazel some room to grow; they can grow up to 6 feet tall and wide if you let them!
When you’re ready to plant, dig a hole that is about half as wide again as the pot your plant comes in. Ensure that the soil level will be at least level with the surrounding area, if not slightly proud (for better drainage). Planting so that the witch hazel is lower than the surrounding area can encourage unwanted suckers (shoots) to grow from the root stock (if you have a grafted plant). Knock the plant from its pot and slightly tease out any roots that are winding around the soil ball; breaking a few won’t do any harm and in fact encourages new root growth in the soil.
Plant the witch hazel in your hole and back fill with soil, firming in well. Give it a good water even on a damp day as this helps to wash soil into any underground air pockets, ensuring better root contact with the surrounding earth. Most witch hazel are small enough that they shouldn’t need staking or supporting but, if you have splashed out on a larger specimen, have a chat with one of our plant experts to discuss whether staking would be useful in your garden.
Witch hazel is a relatively low maintenance plant that can generally be left to ‘do its thing’ all year round. No deadheading required and no regularly pruning, unless you want to keep it to a particular size or shape. They don’t need feeding but, if you want to give yours a boost, a top dressing of a general, balanced fertiliser (like fish, blood and bone) late in winter won’t go amiss.
The only particular attention that your witch hazel might need is water. Although they prefer free-draining soil, that means that they don’t like to sit with their roots wet, rather than that they don’t need water at all. A young plant would benefit from regular watering (preferably with rainwater) until it has established, so for the first couple of years that you have it. If the summer is particularly dry, or you have planted in a pot, consider watering more regularly. And you will know if your Hamamelis is suffering with a lack of water in the autumn or winter as this can cause the flowers to drop.
So plant a Hamemelis today and enjoy its colour and scent for years to come!