Pot Shots: Winter Flowers

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We are glad to live in a climate that allows us to enjoy flowers in our garden all through the year.   Here in coastal Virginia, in Zone 7b, the Chesapeake Bay and nearby James River help us hold what warmth can be gathered from winter sunlight and warm ocean currents from the Gulf.

On mornings like this one, when the thermometer readings fall below 20F and the wind chill is 5F, flowers may seem an unlikely luxury.  And yet our hardiest winter blooming plants bloom on.  Our bursts of cold are brief, and more moderate weather will soon follow.

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Even as spring bulbs are already sending up their first leaves, we enjoy flowers from woody stems on our Camellias, Edgeworthia, Mahonias, Pieris japonica, Osmanthus x fortunei or Fortune’s tea olive, Hamamelis, and a few early swelling buds on the Forsythia.

All of these flowering shrubs may be grown in pots for a year or two, before they need repotting or a permanent spot in the garden.  When potting shrubs, choosing a shrub that is hardy to at least one zone north of where you plan to grow it may give it an extra edge of survival during unusual bouts of cold.  Temporarily covering the shrub when temps dip below its range may help, as well.

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But it is the pots of Violas and Hellebores that offer the most winter color.  The Violas have bloomed non-stop since we planted them in October.  But the Hellebores have just begun opening over the last few days.

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We planted this clump of Hellebores into a raised bed in 2014. They begin to bloom sometime each January, and bloom non-stop until early May.

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As I walk around the yard to check on those we have planted out in previous years, I find evidence of fresh emerging leaves and plump buds, beginning their annual show.

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These winter pots harbor assorted bulbs, some already poking the tips of green leaves up their their gravel mulch.  Soon enough, we’ll have snow drops, Crocus, tiny Iris, daffodils and Hyacinths blooming, too.  Bold Arum leaves also brave the January cold, with more to follow as we move into early spring.

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Planting winter flowering plants in pots invites you to notice them in detail.  Pots can be moved to where you will enjoy them the most, or where they will have a bit of shelter and warming sun on the coldest days.  These tiny flowers don’t get buried in the duff of winter blown leaves or trampled in haste.  They are protected from hungry voles and possibly from curious squirrels, as well.

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I learned a new trick this fall, listening to Brent Heath lecture about all things bulbs.  Brent suggests giving bulbs a quick spray with deer repellent before planting them to mask their delicious aroma from squirrels.  Have you ever planted new bulbs, only to find them missing a few days later, with freshly dug soil and an empty hole where you planted them?  Yes, the squirrels can smell them, and will go to any lengths to dig some of them up for dinner.

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These Iris bulbs all smell tasty to a hungry squirrel. They represent an investment, and can be protected with a quick squirt of liquid animal repellent, such as Repels All, before you plant them. You’ll find several good brands available. Covering their scent is key, and planting garlic cloves in the top of the pot can offer some protection, too.  Once the bulbs begin to grow and form roots, they are less likely to be dug up for dinner.

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Brent suggested a quick spray of repellent on the tastiest of them just before planting, and I added that extra step as I planted this fall.  Now Narcissus bulbs are poisonous, and squirrels leave them alone.  And Brent also shared that the Crocus tommasinianus, will be left alone too, as they have a different aroma from most other Crocus.  If you plant any of the other Crocus species, you might give them a spray to protect them.

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I also mulch freshly planted bulbs with pea gravel.  It looks clean and tidy, protects newly emerged foliage from splashing soil on rainy days, and I like to think it slows the squirrels down in their digging.  Sometimes yes, sometimes no….. 

This year I made the extra effort to spray the newly planted and mulched containers with Repels All when I finished planting, and I’ve come around with an squirt or two again on those planted with Violas, to protect their tasty flowers and leaves from any curious deer.  The extra effort has made a positive difference and we’ve had no grazing or pulling out of new plants.

Adding a few larger attractive stones dresses up the pot a bit, adds interest before the plants grow in, and may further discourage digging.

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Viola with Ajuga reptans

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As you’re planning your winter pots, consider adding winter hardy ground covers like Sedum ‘Angelina’, Lysimachia nummularia: creeping Jenny, Ajuga or Saxifraga stolonifera. These will remain alive and fairly fresh through the coldest weather, but will spring back into active growth early on and fill the pot with fresh foliage to offset the early bulbs.

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Viola with Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ and emerging Muscari leaves.

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Alternatively, I like to carpet the soil in winter pots with freshly dug moss.  The moss remains green and bright through our winter weather, so long as there is enough moisture to quench its thirst.  Once established, it may even begin to grow and spread in the pot to offer a more natural look.

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Winter pot newly replanted at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden features Japanese Holly fern, Arum italicum, Saxifraga stolonifera, creeping Jenny vines and moss mulch.  Many varieties of spring blooming bulbs are planted under the moss.  This pot sits right outside the gate, where it might tempt passing deer.  Only reliably ‘deer proof’ plants make the cut for this space.

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Evergreen ferns like Dryopteris erythrosora: Autumn ‘Brilliance’ fern, Polystichum acrostichoides: Christmas fern, or Cyrtomium falcatum: Japanese Holly fern also brighten pots, add structure and help set off delicate flowers.  These may not remain in active growth through the winter, but their leaves persist, and they reward the thoughtful gardener with wonderful fresh fiddleheads uncurling through the arrangement in the spring.

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Cyrtomiuum falcatum, Japanese Holly fern, remains green and fresh through our winters.  It thrives in Zones 7-10.

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A final touch to add a bit of height and structure to pots might be branches cut from interesting shrubs in the autumn.  Many branches will root, when cut and set into moist soil in the late autumn.  (This is called taking hardwood cuttings.)

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Some trees and shrubs sport attractive winter bark.  Pruned branches may be stuck into pots for structure. Choosing varieties with early blooms, like these cherry trees growing at the Stryker Center in Williamsburg, may also provide an extra pop of winter color.  (It goes without saying that we should only source such branches in our own garden, or from a florist…. not from public plantings….)

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Whether you want to propagate some shrubs, or simply let their attractive form and colorful bark offset your arrangement, cut branches prove a useful and striking addition to a winter pot.  If you choose an early bloomer, like Forsythia or redbud, you might create an especially colorful spectacle come February or early March.

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Autumn blooming Colchicum was the first bulb to bloom in this fall planted pot. Cyclamen leaves have already emerged, and moss has begun to establish. In the months ahead, many different flowering bulbs will bloom until the show is finished in early May.

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We enjoy our Virginia home where gardening may continue year-round.  Gardening in pots helps us extend the season by adding a little flexibility, especially during the coldest weeks of winter.  Pots may be covered or brought indoors for a day or two.  Soil remains workable sometimes even when the ground is frozen solid, and pots may bloom on the patio and porch, where we may enjoy their beauty without leaving the cozy warmth of indoors.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ continues blooming as flowers from bulbs emerge in late March.  The creeping Jenny is actively growing once again, and the Viola bravely flowers on into its six month of bloom.  Winter pots are wonderful!

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“I must have flowers, always, and always.”
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Claude Monet

 

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

2 responses to “Pot Shots: Winter Flowers

  1. I had forgotten your location. I should remember that you are near Chesapeake Bay. Although I have never been there, I learned so much about horticulture from those who lived in that region, as well as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington D. C..

    • I hope you’ll find an opportunity to visit in this part of the country one day. You’ll find dedicated horticulturalists everywhere, and you’ll be astounded by the landscape. Come in April or early May for maximum wattage, when so many of our shrubs and trees are in bloom.

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