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The garden in winter

Melissa Northern Italy zone 8
5 years ago
last modified: 5 years ago

This thread is inspired by Marlorena's request for shots of summer gardens. Those of you who, like me, live in temperate climates, what do you have to look at in your garden in winter? My own feeling is that, in our mild but chilly climate, I can achieve sections of garden that look good in winter, but making it interesting is harder. We're entering our lowest period, and also it's been damp and cold lately, so being outside working has not been welcoming. In milder weather I prune and weed and even dig happily,

I've busy in the shade garden and the woods lately, so they're what I have on my mind. By March, all will be well: the Cornus mas and all the woodland flowers will be in bloom, and then all will accelerate to culminate in the splendor of May. December to February is the problem. First, looking good. I like leafless shrubs and trees and the ground covered with dead leaves; moss here and there. However there's not much to peer at and inspect. For flowers, the evergreen shrubs Sarcococca confusa and ruscifolia bloom in January: the blooms are insignificant but fragrant. Winter aconite flowers at the same time, and I think snowdrops, which are fairly new to my garden, bloom then too. Our two native hellebores, H. foetidus and H. viridis, are opening now, and the garden cultivars will be coming along in a month or two. The earliest flowers of spring proper are the sweet violets, starting in late February. I remember last year being desperately interested in my silvery-lavender, double, grape-juice-scented Parma violets, just because they were the only things in bloom in the garden in that period. Another ornament of the winter garden is the silver-patterned cyclamen foliage, after the flowering--which lasts all fall here--is done. C. hederifolium has the most beautiful leaves, but C. cilicium is not to be despised. Both these varieties seed freely.

The bare whitish trunks of the flowering ash are beautiful. But they need something underneath them. I do love evergreen foliage in winter, and even in our clay-soil, dry-summer climate (no camellias, no rhododendrons), there are plants that work. Sarcococca has beautiful foliage. Daphnes do well here, and many are evergreen: I have D. odora 'Aureomarginata', which is a queen of shrubs, our native D. laureola, and 'Eternal Fragrance' and 'Carol Mackie', all doing pretty well. Box is often good, but now we have box moth, and I'm not going to add more plants that I have to spray. Pyracantha is handsome, but wickedly thorny and not self-limiting as to size. A very good-looking shrub is Cotoneaster lacteum, evergreen and loaded this time of year with bright red fruit. I see admirable specimens of it all over. There are others, but this is getting long. The cotoneaster and pyracantha are for sun or part shade rather than woodland. Also I forgot the big hybrid mahonias, which bloom now, abundant generous yellow flowers with some fragrance, spiny evergreen foliage.

As my horticulturalist sister once pointed out, variegated evergreen shrubs are like plants in bloom twelve months a year. The yellow-variegated privet, so glorious in spring, is a sad sight in winter. But japanese euonymus, which is a scale-ridden mess in some places, is fine here. My yellow-variegated euonymus is flawless all year long, and its sunny gold is hugely welcome in our gray winter weather. I love yellow and red in winter, hence my happiness over cotoneasters, nandina, mahonia, certain rose hips, and those rare shrubs that color brightly here.

Our climate is on the cusp between temperate and Mediterranean, which means it's not going to be that similar to most places in the U.S. Some of the plants I mention are relatively tender. But I wonder what you folks in temperate climates have to look at in winter, if anything. Do you just do other things for a few months? Get your outdoor fix with winter sports? Or is it possible to plan gardens to have an element of winter interest? You know, I forgot buds, developing now to open in spring. They can be beautiful, too.

P.S. Addenda: yew, tall hedges of it, a few plants dotted with red fruits. For evergreen low cover in shade, Danea racemosa, and Ruscus hypoglossum, the latter much handsomer than its cousin R. aculeatus. All three of these develop striking red fruits (the Ruscus may require a pollinating plant: mine don't fruit). Osmanthus and holly, both grown locally, but not overly successful on our property.

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