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!