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THE GARDEN IN WINTER: The cold season is not as boring as you’d think

As a newbie gardener more than four decades ago, I made a lot of mistakes. It took years to learn new tricks to fix them. The effort has been successful for the most part. (No one is perfect.)

For one thing, I thought there were only two seasons: spring, and fall pansies. Thus, my garden had azaleas in every corner. I created a pizza pie in my front yard, mixing orange and pink and red because I saw them and they were pretty.

My foundation was lined with azaleas that got too big and too stressed to be a positive addition. They were beautiful the week or two they were blooming, even though they clashed. The rest of the year they were leggy and rather pitiful.

I eventually understood there were actually four seasons in the garden. My landscape is now full of plants that give me pleasure 12 months of the year.

Like spring and summer and fall, winter can be exciting, with never a dull moment.

Since January is still a good month to add trees and woody shrubs to the garden, perhaps we might all consider stretching our gardening year to 365 days.



Camellia japonica (the Alabama state flower) brightens the winter landscape. The elegant blossoms and shiny evergreen foliage provide a magnificent focal point. Camellias are fairly maintenance-free once they are established and can even become drought-tolerant as they mature.

Sasanqua camellias bloom in the fall; as the temperatures drop they finish their bloom cycle and the japonicas step in.

The needs of the winter blooming japonica are simple: well-drained, acidic, amended soil; protection from the early morning sun; and ample moisture after they are planted. A mighty show rewards the gardener. February can be a blockbuster month.

The only hiccup can occur on a very cold morning when the low temperatures can bite the blooms. Still, tightly budded blooms will survive unscathed and will soon be blooming to take the place of the mushy ones.



Hellebores, or lenten roses, are an evergreen ground cover that bear flowers in a range of colors. The common lenten rose (orientalis) provides a mass of flowers beginning in late December or early January and will stay in bloom until March. The first blooms may be pink, maroon, purple or white, slowly turning to green over time and then re-seeding.

Some may consider lenten roses a nuisance for their re-seeding habit; I, however, am a fan of these no-care plants. The newer hybrids are sterile and do not seed as prolifically as the common hybrids.

The number of recently developed hybrids has skyrocketed. They can be like potato chips; you can’t stop at one. Hellebores are becoming more fanciful with wild colors (including red) and double- or triple-layered flower blooms.

Lenten roses are a no-care, deer-resistant shade plant. They can handle winter sun, but need summer shade. They prefer fertile, well-drained soil. Mine are in acidic soil; I have read they prefer alkaline soil but I guess mine did not get the memo. As for maintenance, I remove piles of tree leaves that fall on them and trim back the tattered foliage to make way for the new leaves.



Edgeworthia, or paper bush, is a must. This deciduous woody ornamental bears small, yellow, nodding, sweetly fragrant flowers in the early winter. Edgeworthia prefers dappled shade and organic well-drained soil. I have seen them planted in the sun, but mine grows beautifully in dappled shade. Water it regularly during summer’s heat and dry conditions.



Winter daphne is an evergreen woody shrub with fragrant pink or white winter blooms. Daphne demands good drainage and the right light. If the gardener can make this persnickety flower happy, it is a delight to grow. The daphne, however, is subject to SDS, or sudden death syndrome. Out of the clear blue it dies. I have lost two, but I still keep trying. The third is growing happily right now. In this case, the lemon is worth the squeeze. Even without the blooms, the shrub’s variegated leaves provide winter interest.



Corylopsis pauciflora, or buttercup winter hazel, is a late winter bloomer with small, yellow, fragrant, bell-shaped flowers. The blooms appear on bare branches. This deciduous woody ornamental prefers part shade. I had two; one blew away in the tornado. The second was broken in half, although it remains a valued part of my garden. The survivor has chartreuse leaves, another plus. The winter hazel prefers well-drained, amended soil.



Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (‘Contorta’, contorted filbert) is the king of my garden. Although this majestic small tree is beautiful in the summer with its rich green leaves, it shines in the winter when its twisted branches and drooping catkins are the stars. I bought this tree as a Father’s Day gift for my husband years ago and had no idea of its winter value. It can grow over 10 feet tall and about that wide. It is essential to find the right planting place. Mine is in part-sun and is watered on a regular basis.



The loropetalum is a colorful evergreen. The purple-tinged leaves are a dramatic contrast to other evergreen shrubs. The poor loropetalum has been pruned into the most unfortunate shapes, sometimes into boxes and other times into round balls. They should be left to have their natural growth habit. The pink fringed flowers that bloom in late winter or early spring are another asset. The loropetalum is wonderful trained into a small tree. One in my garden is several feet higher than my roof (‘Chang’s Ruby’). There is a wide choice of cultivars on the market, allowing the gardener to purchase a cultivar that fits the space (and prevent poor pruning).



The crocus, traditionally the symbol of spring’s arrival, blooms in late winter. The small bulb, available in a variety of flower colors, is also a delight to the chipmunks and the squirrels; plant a bunch to have a few left for yourself. They will grow in full sun or part shade.



The winter garden is not finished without the pansy or its smaller flowered sister, the viola. Plant dozens in a color bed or fill a container. The larger pansies need more sun than the smaller-flowered violas. There are literally hundreds of colors and combinations of colors on the market. The viola blossoms have a sweeter scent than the larger pansies.

Give these dears amended, well drained soil and slow release fertilizer, and they will provide months of nonstop bloom. Bitter temperatures will make them wilt but they will bounce back. It is imperative to keep the spent flowers removed, allowing the pansies to produce more flowers instead of seeds. They are also very attractive to the deer, who will munch the entire plant.



Daffodils are always welcome in the winter garden. There are early-, middle- and late season/spring bloomers. At times the early bloomers can get blitzed by a hard frost and their stems can bend, leaving the blooms on the ground. I planted dozens of daffodils this fall because my garden would need their presence to combat a difficult winter. Daffodils prefer full sun but will perform under the shade of deciduous trees (but not in deep shade).



‘Colorguard’ yucca is a stand out. Its bright yellow and green evergreen leaves resemble fireworks. Some may object to the pointed leaves, however they are not as prickly as other yuccas. It performs best in full sun; it will survive in clay but does much better in drained and amended soil. It can survive on rainfall and does not need additional moisture. ‘Colorguard’ seems resistant to pests, including the deer. Once a year it produces a gorgeous tall bloom. Trim the stalk when it has finished flowering, and that is all the care your yucca needs.



Carex, a member of the sedge family, is a dramatic punctuation point. The evergreen grass-like clumps remain handsome 12 months of the year. ‘Everillo’ is outstanding for its lime leaves, however variegated plants including ‘Sparkler’ should also have a spot in the garden. Carex is happier as a shade plant, although it can take some early sun. It requires regular watering to keep it healthy. It does not need a yearly pruning.



Flowering quince puts on a spectacular display as early as January. The flowers stand out against the bare thorny branches. This deciduous ornamental is tough as nails, performing well in full sun in well-drained soil.



Threadleaf false cypress ‘Gold Mop’ is a colorful addition, forming a mounding shape and featuring bright, almost yellow, foliage. It has the best color in full sun; in shade it turns a darker green. ‘Gold Mop’ is basically trouble free, needing only additional moisture during dry summers.



‘Soft Caress’ mahonia is not invasive, as opposed to the common mahonia, and its leaves are not sticky. It is a low-maintenance dwarf evergreen shrub for the shade garden. In late fall and early winter, it flowers with a spike of yellow blooms followed by small berries.



In winter’s cold, even tree bark can be stunning. The mottled bark of the ‘Natchez’ crepe myrtle is one more reason not to butcher our crepe myrtles. The peeling bark of the river birch is an artistic element.


Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star.