Although tree bark, form, and evergreen foliage generally can certainly liven up the winter garden, there is probably nothing that cheers us in the middle of winter like a splash of color. Our daytime temperatures have ranged from near 70 to the high 40's. There have been days with bright blue skies and days where we never caught even the smallest glimpse of the sun. On those gray days dashes of color coming from the cardinals visiting the bird feeder were certainly welcome. Some of the garden appears to be resting, but many of the plants are putting on a brilliant winter show; after all, it is officially winter until almost the end of March. Unfortunately, there may be a lot of green in the lawns these days as winter weeds are making their appearance – probably the only spot of color in the winter garden we do not relish.
If you peek under your mulch you will see that the daffodils are coming up; soon our gardens will be full of the quintessential winter bloomer with bobbing, waving heads of bright yellow. My first daffodil began to bloom last week. If you plan carefully, you can have them blooming for several months. Daffodils come in an array of flower sizes (from the tiniest jonquil to the huge King Alfred), in colors from bright yellow to white to pink, in stems in different heights – in various blooming times.
I love to plant for winter color; following are a few of my favorites from the more than 400 plants which can bring life to the winter landscape. Hope these will inspire you.
Camellia japonica – these wonderful evergreens also like the same conditions as azaleas: acid, well-drained soil with filtered sun – so many to choose from (more than 3000 named ones exist): ‘R. L. Wheeler’ with its huge rose red blossoms, ‘LA Peppermint’ with it pink and white striped flower, ‘Lady Clare’ an oldy but goody with semi-double deep pink blooms , ‘Professor Sargent’ with dark red anemone-like flowers with ruffled petals in the center, and ‘Magnoliiflora’ (one of my very favorites) with its pale pink semi-double flowers. Camellias like to stay out of the early morning winter sun and very cold winter winds. My mom used to say camellias could break your heart because just as they began to put on their show there would be a killing cold snap which would destroy the blossoms. However, buds that are tightly closed can usually survive the cold.
Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten rose – forms a wonderful evergreen ground cover, and is a prolific reseeder (almost to the point that some may consider it to be invasive); it blooms in late winter to early spring in shades of cream, light green, or purple to brown (most blooms turn light green as they age) preferring areas with high shade. Lenten roses are fairly drought tolerant once they are established although mine needed supplemental water in last season’s drought; they will need tidying up in the late fall to remove tattered leaves. They dislike being disturbed and will pout if they are moved and take a couple of years to get going again; ‘Royal Heritage’, fairly new to the trade blooms pink to purple to black. There is absolutely nothing to bring life to the winter garden like a bed of Lenten roses with their (droopy) multicolored faces.
Pansy – no winter landscape is complete without pansies –whether in containers or in the ground
Chaenomeles, the flowering quince – produces flowers (some varieties double and others single) on thorny branches, with the shrub blooming before the leaves come out – very easy to grow, possibly bullet-proof. It is not very particular about garden soil – takes full sun; once established it is fairly drought tolerant. It is a marvelous sight in the winter garden as it is one of the first to bloom. A special treat is to take a branch that is budded and bring in the house to watch the flowers open up. Of note is ‘Toyo Nishhiki’ which sports pink and white and red flowers all on the same plant.
Daphne -- the most familiar may be the evergreen Daphne odora (winter daphne), prized for its heavenly fragrance and the dainty pink/purple blooms in late winter. WARNING!! Daphnes can succumb to sudden daphne death if they are not given perfect drainage; plant your daphne high just as you would your azaleas. Mine is in a huge pot close to the front door for two reasons: to smell whenever I come in and out and to monitor its growing conditions. Daphnes like to be protected from the mid-day sun and overwatering is a no no.
Edgeworthia chrysantha, the paper bush – deciduous plant that is a must for the winter garden with charming fragrant yellow flowers; it requires same growing conditions as azaleas and ample moisture during summer’s heat and drought.
Mahonia bealei, the leather leaf mahonia (also discussed in an earlier blog) -- planted not only for its wonderful holly- like foliage but also for the spikes of vibrant yellow flowers. It prefers a part shade location with rich soil and regular water (but a well-established plant has been known to tolerate dry shade)
Corylopsis, winter hazel – another one where flowers appear before the leaves– there are many to choose from but all have fragrant flowers shaped like a bell that hang in short chainlike clusters from the branches; another one that likes the same growing conditions as azaleas.
If you still need some winter cheer, please don’t forget the crocus blooming in late winter and signaling to us that spring is around the corner. Mass them; don’t plant them deeply, and hope that the squirrels and the chipmunks aren’t watching you the day you plant them.
Winter does not need to be a drab colorless season. With a bit of research and planning, something can be blooming twelve months of the year in your garden. I have used a book called THE WINTER GARDEN by Peter Loewer and Larry Mellichamp and THE SOUTHERN LIVING GARDEN BOOK for my inspiration and my plant facts. A walk through your favorite garden shop to see what is blooming at this time of the year may also spark your imagination. Remember we are in the middle of the best time to plant in our 7b to 8A area – so go for it!
The other day I noticed that we did not have our usual crowd of birds hanging around our feeder. We checked and the seed had gotten hard and was no longer as appetizing as it should have been so the old seed got dumped and the feeder got a good cleaning. Old, moldy bird seed can actually make our feathered friends sick. Cleaning the bird feeder and the bird bath may be two tasks that can slip our minds this time of the year but the feeder should be cleaned at least once a month. I clean my bird bath every couple of days in the summer. . . to keep the water fresh and to make sure mosquitos don’t use the bath as a breeding ground. During the winter I also give it a regular cleaning and fresh water. If you have a problem with the water freezing in your birdbath, there are little devices than can be put into your baths to keep the water from freezing. One of the most charming garden sights is the birds splashing around in the bird bath. Sometimes during the summer months I will run the sprinkler just for them and they will come running to bathe in the water that collects in the driveway. Not very water wise but a real pleasure for the birds.
Attracting birds to your garden is not difficult. Simply look at your yard as if you were a bird. They are seeking water, food, shelter, and places to build nests to raise their babies. They like to perch on branches; they like places to hide from predators. Choose plants that provide a variety of food; include plants that have seeds, nuts, berries, and fruit. Many native plants can be especially attractive to birds. Birds love the seeds in coneflowers so when the flowers die back leave the seed heads for the birds to munch on. Last summer we were gardening in Jacksonville’s Pocket Park. A little goldfinch was snacking on the seed heads of the yellow coneflowers, completely oblivious to all the activity around him as he enjoyed the treat. Supplement your plants with feeders with various kinds of birdseed. There is a style of feeder for every bird and every human taste. One trick to keeping your feeder stocked for the birds is to figure out how to keep the squirrels away. We have a squirrel baffle that keeps them from climbing the pole. I have seen enterprising squirrels leap from far distances to get to the seed. We have tried hot pepper in the seed which I read is a delicacy for the birds. It was supposed to help keep the squirrels at bay but they went right on eating. So we purchased a special feeder that gives the squirrels a little jolt. We no longer have a squirrel problem. Most birds will eat black oil sunflower seeds. I buy the kind that is the hearts only with the husks removed. It tends to make less of a mess under your feeder. Birds love suet which can be homemade or purchased in just about any hardware, big box, or pet store.
Just as there are a multitude of bird feeders on the market, the gardener can purchase just about any kind of bird bath. Cleanliness again is the watch word for both of these products.
Obviously, birds need shelter from predators as well as to nest. The best way to provide this is to have a variety of shrubs of all sizes and shapes–both deciduous and evergreen–in your landscape. But well-placed bird houses are also important, especially to attract bluebirds to your yard. Houses specially made for bluebirds are easy to find. Watching a pair of bluebirds line a blue bird house is one of the nicest experiences you can have in the garden. The bluebirds in the Jacksonville Pocket Park raised two sets of babies right in the middle of an urban park.
It goes without saying that to have birds you must be really careful with chemicals. Harsh chemicals–pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers and birds are not a good combination. Be prepared to accept less than perfect to make sure your birds stay healthy.
Mulch also makes your yard more inviting to the birds. Not only can they use some mulch material like pinestraw for their nests, mulch brings better soil and, often, earthworms, a treat for the birds. I love to watch the birds scratch around the mulch looking for a tidbit.
As far as predators, some things may be out of control (however, providing lots of good shelter is vital to help keep our birds safe). However, if you have cats consider keeping them indoors or placing your feeder so it does not become a feeding station for your cats. I just read a great idea–put something with thorns under your feeders. So if the seed spills and the birds like to gather to eat the spilled seeds, the thorns will help keep the cats away. We have lots of stray cats in our neighborhood. I have even seen one try to jump in the feeder to catch a bird. That definitely ranks as one of my husband’s top pet peeves.
With a little effort and some planning your yard can be haven for birds of many sizes and colors and will only make your garden a more delightful place for you and the birds.
2011 is about to become a memory; I hope it was a year full of good ones for all of you. As we have at the beginning of most years we begin that time-honored task of making New Years resolutions, most of which we break by the end of the month. Who really gives up chocolate for good?
Gardeners can and should make resolutions, ones we can keep. A few that came to mind:
Be water wise.
Plant the right plant in the right place which realizes into less work for you the gardener and less stress on the plant
Be cautious with herbicides, pesticides, and other garden chemicals for the sake of the environment and beneficial insects.
Reuse, recycle, repurpose.
Compost leaves instead of putting them at the curb
Include vegetable crops in your planting, even in a container.
Help start a community vegetable garden or a flower planting in your neighborhood.
Use native plants in your landscape.
Plan your garden to attract bees, butterflies, and birds.
Interest and educate children in nature and gardening.
Help yourself, your family, and your community become more sustainable.
Work to make sure that our bodies of water–lakes, streams, creeks are clean and inviting.
Consider taking the Master Gardener Class. Through the class you will become an educator and a leader and help others with their knowledge of horticulture.
Happy New Year to all of you!
Newspaper articles and television announcers are full of recommendations for Christmas gifts. Thus, it seems fitting that I might come up with some of my own, with mine targeted toward the gardener. My suggestions are based on years of experience with all sorts of gardening helpers.
Trugs–wonderful plastic buckets, very sturdy and light, sold in a rainbow of bright colors (easy to spot them in the yard). Fill them with water, soil, or plants and tote to your heart's content. The two handles make them easy to carry, too.
Japanese horihori knife–great digger and weeder. One side is serrated so you can use it to cut if needed. It also has a measure for planting bulbs, seeds, etc. It is nice to have the sheath for the knife and a belt to secure it around your waist.
Plastic kneeler–always handy when you have to sit in the wet grass or dirt or just as cushioning for your knees. These come in very bright colors so you can find them anywhere you leave them in your yard.
Felco pruners–the very best, pricey, but a pair can last for many years, unless you lose them in the garden or accidentally throw them away with a pile of clipping
Tool caddy–anything from a trug to a garden apron to a special garden tool belt–helps to keep track of your tools, your cell phone or anything else you need in the garden.
Nitrile gardening gloves–the very best–lightweight, stretchy, comfortable, but allow the gardener dexterity to handle any job.
Gift Certificate to a gardening store for a plant, to a book store for the latest gardening book, to the landscape supply for a load of mulch, pinestraw or mushroom compost mixed with top soil.
An offer to load up and deliver a load of "black gold," compost, from the community landfill.
I welcome your suggestions for other garden inspired gifts. Hope some of the above make the gardener in your life smile.
We are now in one of the two best times of the year (the other being winter) for planting trees and ornamental shrubs in our landscapes. The huge spring variety of plants in the big box stores would lead the gardener to believe that spring is the best time to plant. It is not. Planting now allows plants to concentrate on developing a good strong root system instead of expending energy on maintaining leaves and flowers or fruit. Winter rains provide the moisture a new plant needs; thus, we are not having to be out watering new plantings on almost a daily basis. If the local big box stores do not have what you need visit locally owned nurseries. Our area has several very nice ones. If they don’t have what you need, perhaps they can special order for you.
There are just a few simple rules to help your new plant thrive. The most basic of these is to plant the right plant in the right place. That means the homeowner plants a plant where it can grow with the least stress on the plant and least work (i.e., maintenance, pest and disease prevention and treatment) for the homeowner. For example, not using a shrub for a foundation planting that will quickly overtake the windows and, thus, require hours of maintenance to keep it pruned into shape. As a MG one of the most common questions I have been asked is what to do about a foundation planning (the one under the front windows of your home) that has gotten too big; see photo. Another example of the right plant in the right place would be planting a shrub that requires shade in the shade instead of in a full sun location. That shade lover will not flourish; gallons of water will be necessary to help it live at all.
Another very important thing to remember when planting a new tree or a shrub is not plant it too deeply. Planting too deep is one sure way to kill a plant. First of all, do not dig the hole any deeper than the root ball (but do dig the hole at least three times as wide as the root ball). As a matter of fact, it is better to position the planting so that the top of the root ball is at least an inch or so over the soil line. If you dig the hole too deep and then add soil to the hole, the soil and the plant will eventually settle, causing it to be planted too deeply. Research also indicates that for a single hole planting, it is best not to amend the soil with other materials but to backfill your hole with the native soil. Use of the native soil that you removed when you dug your hole allows the plant to adapt to its new home more easily.
One other point to remember is that when you mulch, do not place your mulch directly against the trunk. Mulch placed up against the bark is an open invitation to insects and disease to invade your healthy plant. Think doughnut instead of volcano as you place your mulch around your plant.
There are many other considerations to think about as you plant. The Extension Service has lots of excellent publications discussing them. We will take up some other pointers for successful planting in future blogs.