I don’t know about you but after the first 14 days of December drenched us in more than 10″ of rain and we broke the record for most days in a row with .25″+ of precipitation me and my garden are a sodden mess. Its not only the damned rain, its the darkness and even myself a dyed in the wool Oregonian has had more than enough. Screw the “drought” and to hell with the snowpack. I’ve even taken things by the horn and booked a week in Palm Springs in late February. I have a feeling by then I will have eaten my umbrella and I’ll need many hours perched in blinding vitamin D. Staring at cacti. Cacti that are actually happy to be there in their appropriate climate.
Circumvent the SAD
My friends and co-workers are quite aware of my grumpy disposition by mid-winter and though I have shiny palms and bougainvillea to look forward to I have another plan to circumvent the blues. Its called flowers. A friend and owner of a big nursery once told me that foliage is king. While I agree I have to admit to the curative power of flowers. When I began my current garden four years ago I set aside a portion just to counteract my seasonal asshole disorder. Its my winter garden. And with experience and circumspect planning I can say that it has achieved its purpose.
Do it for yourself, do it for a smile.
Over the years I’ve kept a mental tally of all the winter blooming plants in our climate and when they arrive to shine. Its not so much about an orgasmic show but more about actual movement and growth in the dormant season. Its about freakin’ hope. These plants shirk the cold, shrug off the wet and push right through. I’m not saying that you should have an entire garden of winter interest plants- to ignore the other three seasons would be a travesty. But to let a little smile creep across your face on Martin Luthers birthday or to greet Valentines Day with actual flowers in nature can set you free. Let me describe:
Pick a spot, any spot.
My own winter garden is behind my garage. Unless you know to look it escapes the notice of just about everyone that visits my garden. Tucked away just for me it houses a months long display of plants that quietly rock my world. There is an obvious advantage to cool season bloomers- not only are they brightly conspicuous in the dank of winter they bloom for such a long, long time. Flowers last forever in the natural vegetable crisper that is an Oregon winter. And it doesn’t take a whole lot to make a big impact. In my case I’ve shoved together a trove of plants in a 10′ x 12′ area that reliably perform.
Where to begin?
On my path to plant discovery I’ve amassed quite a collection, I’ve tried literally thousands of plants and killed many hundred. Now I know how to maximize the impact in just a small space. The first and most important thing you need for a winter garden is Hamamelis. (Witchazel) a small tree that will perfectly set the mood. They range from luminous yellow to orange and red- even purple with curly curious flowers. My own is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aphrodite’- large, fragrant orange flowers crowd the twigs of this cultivar. In a normal year it begins to shine in late January and persists to early March. Everyone should have one- part shade and moisture retentive soil suit it and not just flowers but the graceful angel shaped crown and fall color endears them as well. Trust me, you will never regret a witch hazel. And if you can’t wait until January cut stems force easily inside once their flower buds have set. These are easy to spot.
But back to the beginning.
I should start at the beginning of winter. Thats not technically the calendar equivalent but I base the beginning, November 15, on the first week we could have an intrusion of arctic air. And my own end of our short winter is February 15 when its rare to impossible for Jack Frost to piss us off. One of the great glories of gardening is discovery and once I discovered Sasanqua Camellias a whole new world arrived. Typically they flower from October to January and even if you are not a Camellia fan you have to admit there’s a certain amount of cheer in flowers at that time of the year. They come in many colors, take shade or sun and are easy, easy to grow shrubs. They pop off masses of lightly fragrant flowers for months. Just when you think that they have frozen barren of blooms a whole new set erupts. In my own garden I have two that I cherish for their display.
Simplicity to opulent fragrance.
‘Hugh Evans’ is a single bright pink and it pops out vividly colored flowers for months. I adore its small forest green glossy leaves. And now that I see the combination of Sasanqua Camellias with vividly colored fall leaves it opens up a whole new tableau of aesthetic joy. My second is ‘Yuletide’- true red flowers- no pink, strongly in the orange spectrum with a yellow center. And true to its name it peaks right around Christmas. Other species of winter blooming Camellias offer a huge compilation of choice as well. My favorites- which are hybrids are ‘Tulip Time’- huge, chalice shaped pink flowers and ‘Minato-No-Akebono’. Both open flowers beginning in mid-January and the latter has single pink flowers intensely fragrant of freesias. These I train to a wall to maximize space. They endure dense shade or a lot of sun and require only a few diligent soaks in summer.
Let the leaves be your canvas.
The heart of my winter garden is a shrub that I dearly love. It is Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’. Huge 18″ wide leaves are touched on the edges in white. In October to December enormous flower structures emerge from the foliage and like a 60’s light fixture they host cream colored balls that are flowers. It takes me by surprise every year. The bold evergreen foliage is part of a wall of foliage that separates me from my neighbors and their yappy dog Paige and chickens. (Nothing against chickens). A pair of clumping bamboos provide an arching wall of dainty foliage on my favorite species Boorinda angustissima. It loves shade, its incredibly drought tolerant and has risen to 16′ tall arching to 8′ wide. I love everything about it. Its the epitome of grace. On a west facing partially shaded wall I host an espaliered Pyracantha x graberi a hybrid I prize for its true RED not orange berries and glossy foliage. The berries are a vivid decoration and treat for birds. Adjacent to that is a shrub I find indispensable- Grevillea x ‘Neil Bell’. Dapper sage green foliage perfectly combines with spider shaped tomato red flower clusters. This large growing evergreen blooms YEAR ROUND and once the hummers have found it expect a lot of riotous territorial spats. To 8′ x 8′ tall- it gets absolutely no care or water from me. The red flower tones work perfectly with the long lasting fruit of the Pyracantha.
The lower layer flows with fun.
On the ground I have arranged what I now regard as the most reliable winter treasures. Behind a deep green dwarf boxwood hedge I’ve placed Hybrid Hellebores- 3 whites, 3 pinks, 3 yellows- in various double to single flower forms. Arranged at their feet is the remarkable winter flowering Cyclamen coum. I pick the varieties with the most dramatic leaf coloration because that in itself is a show before the scads of dainty pink/purple/white flowers amass beginning at the new year. Its a floral combination you cannot beat rivaling summer opulence. Cyclamen coum is a prodigious seeder so you need only start with a few and in subsequent years the tapestry of leaf coloration and flower color is a delight. Here a single clump of a favored and easy to grow perennial Iris unguicularis (Winter Iris) alights with violet blue flowers continuously from November to March. It tolerates dry shade as well as full sun and forms grassy clumps that cradle the fragrant flowers. All of this is at the foot of a winter flowering Mahonia x media ‘Charity’. Its a tiered evergreen of total refinement and the luminous spikes of yellow flowers also beckon to hummingbirds. Its a big plant so give it elbow room and remember that the leaves pack a prickly punch.
Tommy to the rescue
In January bulbs make their appearance. Massed beneath the Witch Hazel is the fantastic winter blooming Crocus tommasinianus- or Tommy Crocus for short. I’ve chosen the cultivar ‘Ruby Giant’ which is a bit misleading- the flowers are large but vibrant purple. Nothing bothers this bulb. Squirrels seem to shun it, winter slugs avoid it and it cheers me immensely that its grassy foliage has the good manners to disappear into dormancy by mid spring. In time it seeds itself prolifically and shows up wherever it wants- this means you can start with just a handful and before you know it you have colonies. An ideal counterpart is Galanthus nivalis – Snowdrops. I brought them from my old garden and I don’t regret it a bit when their snow white drops of charm emerge. They too disappear cleanly by mid-spring. If you are a fan of blue flowers take a look at the demure Chionodoxa luciliae (Glory of the Snow) with star shaped flowers of ultra marine. It too seeds itself around in rich soil that can even bake in summer.
Garlands of love
Finally, I have two vines that bring immense happiness. I’m a total fool for the genus Jasminum and winter flowering Jasminum nudiflorum is a joy. More of an arching scandent thing its tubular glimmering yellow flowers appear off an on in mild weather. I once saw it trained dutifully on a wooden white painted trellis- it was sunshine itself. Give it room and at least half a day of sun. Another enchanting plant is the vine Clematis cirrhosa ‘Wisley Cream’. I’ve grown other winter flowering C. cirrhosa cultivars and they were NOT that great. Kind of weedy actually- but this is exceptional. Its finest attribute is 2″ wide luminous yellow bells from October to February. Its a vigorous but not obnoxious vine with fine glossy evergreen leaves. Shade or sun it prospers. If I had the room I would let it decorate the superb winter blooming shrub Viburnum x ‘Charles Lamont’ with large white/shell pink clusters of fragrant flowers initiating at the beginning of the new year.
The tip of the iceberg.
This is just a sample of all that is possible. Don’t forget Heaths (Erica)- and there are other colors beside Good N Plenty pink and white, Grevilleas have a host of species and cultivars for nearly year round interest and its a genus whose time has come to Oregon. Winter honeysuckle emits its mysterious perfume- Lonicera x standishii- a large shrub tolerant of any condition. A personal favorite at Xera is Arctostaphylos x ‘Austin Griffiths’ a large Manzanita with extravagant mahogany bark and masses of clear pink urn shaped flowers for two months beginning in January. I’ve focused on blooming plants but don’t neglect architecture- bark, the total art of Agaves and Yuccas whose form and sunny origins can send you away from the dismal gray.
El Nino- One wet mother.
We are on track to have the wettest December on record. Thats a tally of more than 13″ of rain. This isn’t surprising for an El Nino. And the projected forecast is showing not much change in the next three weeks. Long range forecasts hint at a southern intensification of the Polar jet possibly merging with the Subtropical jet and dipping southward bringing storms into California. I hope this pans out for their benefit and it may just give us a little respite from the the deluge. Happy Holidays.