Ways to enjoy gardening during the blah months of winter.
But I don't want to go outside--it's cold!
Hello there. Like all true gardeners, I can appreciate complaints about the cold of winter, not to mention the impatient anticipation for warmer weather to arrive and, with it, pretty flowers, exciting new players on the garden stage, and FAR more pleasant gardening conditions. It is about now that catalogs for spring gardening start arriving, and we look longingly at the pretty pictures and wish something like that was going on outside. That said, the winter landscape need not be bleak and desolate. Why, on January first of this year I found both rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum, three-and-a-half months early!) in bloom in my central Virginia garden. Also, my Christmas roses (Helleborus niger and H.n. cv. "Double Fanatsy") are budding nicely, as is an as-yet unplanted tender Camellia (C. transarisanensis). In addition, many plants are providing foliar interest this time of year, or else structural interest from bark or branches. This article is intended to offer a few ideas for plants that can be used to create winter interest, as well as general advice for gardening in the cooler months. Bear in mind that this advice will be most useful for cold hardiness Zone 7/ heat hardiness Zone 7 gardens with central Virginia's bipolar climate, but readers from many regions may hopefully find useful tips herein.
As noted above, one CAN find plants that will bloom in the dead of winter, even as far north as Virginia. Though green-and-gold is a fluke, rosemary and Hellebores can both be somewhat counted on to provide off-season bloom in Zone 7. Rosemary is an unpredicatable bloomer under the best of conditions, but healthy plants do bloom periodically through the cooler months, and this is not the first time I've seen them in bloom on New Year's Day. As for Hellebores, the Christmas rose can come into bloom anytime from the end of December to the start of March, depending on variety and strain, but they are almost always in bloom by the latter part of that range. My "Double Fantasy" starts pretty reliably at the end of February, and the other strain seems to start a bit sooner. H. foetidus, the bear's-foot Hellebore or stinking Hellebore, is arguably the most reliable winter bloomer of the bunch, and is usually in bloom by early February (sometimes late January). The remaining Hellebores usually hold off till March to bloom, but their textural leaves provide interest all winter. Other earlybirds include the common daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus, usually in bloom by the end of February) and certain Crocus varieties (my C. minimus is usually in bloom by mid-late February). Cyclamen coum is also a true earlybird, blooming reliably in February (and sometimes sooner). On the flip side, several fall bloomers often last well into December, notably silver-and-gold (Ajania pacifica). Fragrant ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes cernua var. odorata), leopard plant (Farfugia japonica), and certain fall-blooming members of genera like Tricyrtis (T. lasiocarpa) also can last that long, as can several of the native Aster species. This year, I was surprised that my bush marigold Tagetes lemmoni did not even START blooming until around Thanksgiving, and went for nearly a solid month. In terms of shrubs, wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) are reliable for dead-of-winter bloom. Also, witch-hazel (Hamamelis spp.) is an excellent group with which to bookend winter, with occasional flowers popping out during January. Finally, several shrubs, notably winter jasmine (Jasminum nudum), Forsythia and flowering quince (Chaenomeles) are earlybirds that occasionally get a head-start in late fall.
Leaves and Twigs
Even if one has to make do with a limited number of blooms in their winter garden, there is a wide range of plants that can offer tremendous foliar interest in wintertime, and there are a few whose stems and twigs are also lovely or interesting. Of the latter, Japanese maples (Acer palmatum cvs.), red-twig dogwoods (several Cornus spp.) and the Harry Lauder's walking-stick (Corylus avellana "Contorta") are standouts. Of the former, excellent shrubs include Camellias, sakaki (Ternstroemia gymnanthera), mountain laurel (Kalmia) and plum yew (Cephalotaxus). Excellent perennials for evergreen interest are teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), Galax, Shortia, rattlesnake orchid (Goodyera pubescens), spotted pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Hellebores, and one of my personal favorites, Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens). Finally, do not forget wintergreen perennials: Cyclamen, Arum, puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale) and cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) are all excellent ways to brighten up the winter landscape.
A few last thoughts...
If you're still with me, I hope you've gotten a few ideas as to WHAT to plant to allow for winter activity in the garden. A lot of people also wonder WHEN to plant. Most plants can be planted even in the dead of winter, provided a few key things are remembered. One: the ground will be HARD. It is oftentimes simply easier to plant in spring or fall. That said, as long as you can work the ground, you can plant. However, that hardness of soil is indicative of one thing that is key to remember with late-season plantings--water is not moving freely through the soil. Ergo, plants with shallow or fibrous root systems are likely to dry out if they are not tended carefully. They also may literally freeze out of the soil, which can be very damaging to plants like Azaleas that dry out easily and to plants like Camellias, Gardenias, crepe myrtles, Indian hawthorne, callas, Cannas and others that can suffer serious cold damage to their roots; this latter group in particular is better planted in spring. Also, plants that REQUIRE winter to properly vernalize (tulips, Narcissus, many native wildflowers) must be planted early enough to get the proper amount of cold. Finally, certain plants are just picky. The cranefly orchid (Tipularia) is remarkably easy to transplant WHEN DORMANT. However, do so now and it will likely die. That said, if you get the itch to get out and do some planting of suitable varieties, feel free to do so provided you allow for a little extra work this winter season. I know spring can't come soon enough, but there certainly are ways for gardeners to remain entertained in the meantime.