January's been awfully grey and gloomy, with some warmish periods that seem almost like March, but we're once again under snow cover and back to somewhat normal winter temps, keeping plants properly dormant and protected from frigid wind. For gardeners this is the time for rest, planning and evaluation. Much can be accomplished now that the holidays are over and the rush of spring chores hasn't started, so there's no reason to succumb to depression and despair! Here are some tips for getting through, and getting things done...
I love looking at plants, and over the years I've developed an enhanced appreciation for those that look good in winter, when we really value a little dose of color in the midst of the white, grey and brown landscape.
Broad-leafed evergreens are few and far between for our climate, but one that I've grown for years is a very hardy cultivar of the Swamp Magnolia, Magnolia virginiana 'Moonglow'. It does lose some leaves in the winter months, and in colder winters will bronze out completely by spring, but so far this year it's withstanding the weather and providing a nice spot of greenery along my little stream.
It's really a star during the warm months, offering an upright outline and small but exquisite lemon-scented flowers in July.
I love Viburnums too, and encourage gardening friends to try more of the many great species and varieties of these beautiful and useful shrubs. One of my favorites is 'Wentworth', a selection of the native Cranberry Viburnum, Viburnum trilobum. It's a tall shrub that gradually suckers into a nice, non-invasive clump, wonderful for naturalized areas but refined enough for a more formal planting too. The beautiful clusters of fruit are eventually eaten by the birds, but must not be palatable until they've frozen and thawed several times, because mine are always pretty persistent through the winter.
Beeches and Hornbeams are trees known for holding their leaves through the winter, which makes them valuable for hedging, but many Oaks have persistent foliage as well. My Scarlet Oak, Quercus coccinea, still pleases me with the glowing tobacco brown leaves that followed its bright red fall color, and hang on until the new buds break in spring.
Most perennials retreat underground for their winter dormancy but there are a few exceptions, even here in Zone 5. Yuccas have a bad rap with many gardeners, probably because they're often seen isolated in the middle of a lawn surrounded with white gravel, but I love their strong form and persistent foliage. Use them singly, or better yet in bold groups, to provide a gutsy linear texture among fussier perennials. Yucca filamentosa comes in basic green or in several nice variegated forms like 'Bright Edge' (above) or the even showier 'Color Guard', which is the reverse variegation with yellow centered, green edged blades.
Another perennial that seems dauntless in cold weather is the Bear's Foot Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus. It must have some kind of built-in antifreeze because when the temperature dips below 25 or so it turns almost black a shrivels, and I'm sure it won't recover, but when there's a warm spell it recovers its color and form completely. The flower buds have been formed since fall but they seem to be soldiering through unharmed, waiting to blossom in April. Taller than most other Hellebores, it thrives in woodland soil, can tolerate dry shade, and though individual plants aren't extremely long-lived, will reseed itself when happy.
Many ornamental grasses took a beating from the heavy snowfall we had back in December, but Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' lived up to its reputation for being one of the most upright native grasses. It manages to spring back even after being coated with ice.
These young plants of 'Northwind' (left above) were just planted in July, and they've already proven very valuable for winter interest. Completely different in effect is Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition' (right above), with wiry stems so delicate that the snow can't cling and break them down.
There's plenty of twiginess in the winter garden, some of which is very attractive in form and color. Just about every gardener knows the red stemmed Dogwoods, and Cornus sericea 'Cardinal' (left above) is a great cultivar, taller than many, which makes it useful as a screening shrub in summer. There are also variegated, golden-leaved, and yellow stemmed Dogwoods that can add even more variety to a planting. Many Willows develop vibrant winter stem color too, like Salix alba 'Flame' (right above), a large shrub/tree with bright golden orange to red bark that looks gorgeous against the snow. It can be stooled down to 1 ft annually in early spring if you want a bushy hedge or screen, or allowed to develop into a tree.
I'm a big fan of the native Hydrangea arborescens, especially the lacecap versions that catch and hold the snow so beautifully. I have a group of 'White Dome' (above left), an older variety that's inexplicably hard to come by now, but I've also recently planted several 'Haas' Halo' with even larger and more voluptuous flower clusters. Magnolias (above right) aren't colorful in winter, but their elegant branching habit is very pleasing and the fattening buds look promising silhouetted against the grey January sky.
I tend to think of container plantings as a summer feature, but with a little imagination they can be designed to be quite decorative through the colder months as well. Here, little dwarf evergreens make an interesting group in a frost-resistant trough, handling ice and snow as well as the full-sized versions. You could also make a nice display of grouped containers planted up with easy and hardy rock garden perennials like Sedums, Sempervivums, Orostachys and the like.
Daily walkabouts are not only good exercise but helpful to see your property in a different light, stripped down to its essential layout. Devoid of flowers and most foliage, your garden will reveal its design strengths and weaknesses, suggesting where edits are needed and additions required. You can even lay out new planting areas when snow is on the ground, as I've done in the photo above. I find it easier to see the outline I want on this white canvas, and 2 ft. rebar stakes can be driven into frozen ground with a hammer after roughing out the line by walking it in boots. The stakes will still be in place come spring when I'm ready to cut the edge.
Reading is of course a prime winter activity for most of us plant-obsessed people, but why not try some informal writing as well? As a young gardener trying to learn the sequence of flowering, I started keeping a weekly list of what was blooming. This was around 1980, when I had my first real garden. Over the years that evolved into a full-fledged (albeit sporadic) garden journal that has given me a lot of pleasure... and preserved much useful information.
Often I'll refer to the last couple of years' entries while I'm planning the next season's work or trying to remember the name of something recently planted. But sometimes, maybe once a year, I'll look back at some of my oldest entries. It's amazing how much I've forgotten that I once grew, and how far I've progressed as a gardener. I read the names of mail-order nurseries now long out of business (then my only source of unusual plants) and the occasional notations of life events: the birth of a friend's first child, the death of a pet. But mostly it's weather, what's blooming, what's been bought and planted and where, what's turned out to be the color advertised (or not) and what's established and thrived, and of course, what hasn't. Some of the entries really make me laugh now... here, a rant from April 1995:
"Mail-order nurseries are the worst... planted today a bone-dry stick that cost $12 (plus shipping!) from Burpee... if it grows into the yellow Trumpet Vine it's sold as, it will be a miracle, and take years. If Trumpet Vines weren't so weedy I'd have no hope at all. This precious treasure arrived in a padded envelope, tied to a bamboo stake, without a bit of moss or soil, the fleshy root itself broken in two places."
More often, though, I'm writing about something delightful... the first Daffodil, or a surprisingly happy plant association, or some perennial that returned three-fold from the year before. Looking back, I can believe that most everything was worth recording... writing things by hand has been proven to solidify things in your memory... and because the gradual accumulation of that experience has made me a better gardener.
The beginning of the year is a great time to take up your pen (especially you young gardeners) and start to record what you think you'll remember (but won't), what are your successes and your failures, your favorites, surprises, disappointments, goals, frustrations and dreams. Don't make it a chore, just an occasional pleasure... sometimes in the busiest part of the year I go several weeks without making an entry, but I always return and catch up. Trust me, ten or twenty years from now (it will be sooner than you think!) you'll have a recorded body of personalized gardening information and memories that are far more precious and valuable to you than anything you can Google.
In our home we celebrated the Lunar New Year this past week, so here's wishing you all peace and prosperity ahead! It's the Year of the Rooster, and our Henry just re-feathered and is looking particularly fine right now, as is appropriate.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.