Appreciating the Winter Garden

Two words bring together my feelings about gardening: appreciation and fascination. At the end of December, when time seems compressed and hasty, tasks are many and quiet moments few, the garden gives us time to appreciate a slower, gentler pace.

Appreciation means, to me, looking closely at plants, sensing the feel of damp winter air, listening for a chickadee’s cheerful song, and reveling in the serenity of a garden. My garden’s on Capitol Hill in Seattle, surrounded by houses and city activity, but it offers quiet, a moment to sit in the copper-roofed rain shelter during early dusk and savor the silence falling into the earth along with rain.

Touring a nursery will also provide a sense of calm, as you breathe in extra oxygen provided by plants in masses, and learn what blooms in your area’s gardens during this time of year. I think of nurseries as places to get refreshed, so don’t forget to visit your favorite during the holidays. Thank the staff for their year-round efforts. (Take them some holiday cookies!)

Lately, I have been seeking hellebores, plants contributing to my winter appreciation of the garden. Hellebores, perennial flowering plants, provide great “winter watching.” These perennials, ancient residents of central Europe (the Alps and the Balkans, as well as Corsica and Majorca), open translucent flowers of many different tones in mid-winter and often provide nearly evergreen leaves throughout the year. Generally, hellebores thrive in shady, well-drained spots with good organic soil amendments. They grow best in a slightly “limey” soil (with lime added to bring the pH up to at least 6.0 or above). Adding 5 pounds of dolomitic lime to 100 square feet of soil every three years seems to suit them fine. You don’t need to lime yearly. And though they like lime, they seem unexacting and will grow without it. Be sure you check the soil drainage –by no means are these successful bog plants!

They are quite tolerant of dry summers, though young plants will collapse and droop when the soil moisture gets very low. (This happened to first-year plants in my dry summer garden under vine maple trees.) Infrequent summer soaking keeps them going well. Don’t neglect their summer water, especially in their first two years in the garden. They are good plants for a “waterwise” landscape.

Hellebores can be confusing in their descriptions and names. It’s perhaps best to sort them by how the foliage and blooms appear. One of the most persistent, as an early winter architectural specimen, is Helleborus foeditus, with fine dark-green leaflets and pale green flowers. This hellebore produces strong stems during summer that bear flower buds on the tips, the flowers opening in early winter. It’s beautiful behind snowdrops and will show nicely from mid-December on, persisting into February.Many of the prettiest hellebores are cultivars of Helleborus niger, or of Helleborus orientalis. These are collectively sometimes called the “Christmas rose,” though they bloom later than Christmas, and are then dubbed “Lenten rose.” These produce new stems as they bloom. The old leaves fold down against the ground and can be clipped off when the new foliage emerges.

They grow well in light or dappled shade, and occur in dozens of colors. Many of the colors are shades of white, cream, rose, pale spotted purple, and even deep burgundy and black (in the case of H. orientalis ). Selecting these while in bloom helps gardeners to get the most delightful colors.

Just now in our gardens the flowers are still tucked into fat buds at the base of the old leaves. As December and January progress, they will expand into lovely, open five-petalled bloom.

Nurseries will have many different named cultivars of hellebores as the winter continues. Your garden appreciation can expand when you plant these to observe.

You can also check nurseries and garden centers for winter-blooming shrubs and other attractive plants to add interest to the garden during January and February. Many of the very early bloomers give perfume to the air: Viburnum burkwoodii, Sarcococca ruscifolia (sweet box) , and Daphne odora all entice the nose just as they attempt to entice early insects in the winter garden. Explore to see which ones engage your senses.

Other winter bloomers such as Camellia sasanqua and various heathers do not scent the garden, but certainly enliven it with attractive foliage and flowers.

Plants don’t read calendars or respond to clock time. We appreciate gardens as they move on from growth to growth without an end point. But gardeners think of “year’s end,” as a marker for reflection and ideas about next season. Take some time to appreciate the garden and to be grateful for the presence of plants in our lives as this year, century, and millennium ends.

Mary Robson, Washington State University
Area Extension Agent

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