Columbine emerges through a winter ground cover of Arum italicum in early March.
Autumn colors our world with vivid hues of scarlet, orange, yellow and purple for a few short weeks as deep green summer fades into the browns and greys of late autumn and winter. We distract ourselves for a while with bright and colorful holiday decorations. But once past Boxing Day in late December, we wake up to the bare bones of our winter gardens.
Of all the year, this may be the stretch when we most keenly wish we had planned ahead for some color and interest in the garden. Once the trees stand as skeletons against wintery skies, we look with fresh appreciation at every evergreen shrub and colorful berry left behind.
Many of our lawns lose their luster after first frost. Most herbaceous plants die back and weather to shades of duff and brown, if they haven’t already turned to mush as Cannas and Hedychium so quickly do.
Autumn Brilliance ferns, Mahonia and Edgeworthia chrysantha maintain a beautiful presence through the worst winter weather in our garden. This photo was taken in late December 2016.
Winter beauty relies on a subtler, more sophisticated sense of color and form. We are called on to appreciate the wabi-sabi aesthetic of well-worn objects past their prime, like the weathered stalks and seed pods of perennials left standing in the borders and twigs etched against a cloudy sky.
Even woody vines add interest snaking through the trees or over rocks with delicately curled tendrils, or a few stalwarts, like our native honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, still blooming late into January. Native Carolina jessamine keeps its green leaves as it scrambles through roadside trees and over fences.
When planning for a beautiful winter garden, woody plants give us that consistent structure to bridge the seasons. Interesting bark, beautiful form and early buds and bloom can turn an ordinary summer shrub into something spectacular and entertaining in a winter garden.
Hellebores bloom reliably throughout winter. Here buds are already visible in early January of 2018.
Evergreen shrubs like Camellias will bloom profusely both late into the season, and again in earliest early spring. Camellia sasanqua bloom into January in our area, while Camellia japonicas will begin blooming in late February or March. Mahonia offers yellow flowers for hungry bees in late autumn and winter, and then plump purple berries for the birds in late spring.
Other early bloomers, like Forsythia and some Magnolias take our breath away before most other woody plants awaken. Trees like alder and hazel ornament themselves with catkins that grow longer and more dramatic from October, before the leaves even fall, through until March.
There are also cold-loving herbaceous perennials and geophytes. Arum italicum is already sending up its first beautiful leaves in our garden. It will continue sending up new leaves throughout the winter filling otherwise empty borders with fresh and vibrant green. These aroids produce their own chemical heat, melting any snow and ice that fall on them without turning crisp or brown. They will bloom in April and May, then fade away again by June for a summer-time rest.
Hellebores are already sending up new leaves, too. Their first flower buds will appear in December, and they will bloom prolifically until May. Epimediums, sometimes called fairy wings, prove evergreen in our garden, with their often holly or heart shaped leaves. Then they burst into growth with new leaves and delicate flowers in earliest spring.
Galanthus, snowdrops. often bloom through mid-winter snows.
By February, the early Crocus, Galanthus and early dwarf Iris will break ground with delicate leaves and vivid flowers. Plant Crocus tommasinianus, or Tommies, for earliest bloom. The bulbs of this Crocus species have a taste unpleasant to rodents, and so won’t be dug up as squirrel or vole snacks. It is always smart to spray new bulbs with an animal repellent as you plant them, anyway, and maybe to spray the bed or pot after planting, too, to discourage squirrels from digging.
Iris reticulata or Iris histrioides sometimes emerge in late January to bloom in February through March. Plant them in a pot in a sunny spot on the patio for earliest bloom. You might also plant clumps in a border for winter interest, and they thrive in a rock garden. Like many other spring blooming geophytes, dwarf Iris bulbs appreciate hot dry conditions through the summer months. They usually bloom with the early snowdrops, Galanthus, and as the leaves of early Cyclamen coum emerge. Plant them against a back drop of Cyclamen, Arum or Hellebore to make them pop.
Hardy Cyclamen form a beautiful and spreading groundcover during the winter months. C. hederifolium emerge in October and persist past frost. C. Coum emerge in February and persist until May. They are very small, but their finely marked evergreen leaves and tiny pink or white flowers are exquisite. Plant them in patio pots or under trees and shrubs. Placement below trees is especially good as the ground will stay drier there during their summer dormancy.
Evergreen ferns, like the Christmas fern, autumn ferns and holly fern give winter color, too. They may get a bit beaten down after a heavy snow, but their texture remains beautiful throughout the winter months. When their new fronds appear in early spring, they add interest and drama when little else is going on in the garden. Cut back older fronds as the new ones emerge.
Evergreen mistletoe lives anchored to the branches of the trees, adding color to our garden once the leaves fall each autumn.
Finally, even a tree’s bark becomes a thing of beauty in the winter landscape. Exfoliating barks like those of crape myrtles and birch trees provide interesting texture as well as color. Many Cornus species boast bright red or yellow winter stems, especially on new growth. Red maples have red stems when young. Some gum trees boast ‘wings’ in their smaller branches and twigs, and poplar and sycamore trees both have beautiful, light colored often mottled bark that shines on a bright winter day. Oakleaf Hydrangeas hold onto their flowers and scarlet leaves, on beautifully shaped woody stems with peeling bark, until new buds emerge.
When we notice these small details, we find beauty in unlikely places. The sparseness and subtlety of a winter landscape balances the exuberance of summer. We go back to bare bones. There is much less competition for our attention and much less to do in the garden. We can breathe. We can enjoy a few months of peace and quiet before we greet another spring.
Camellia sasanqua blooms from November through January in our garden.
Woodland Gnome 2020
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