I love to visit gardens in winter, even my own. While it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the spring rush, when often it seems that everything from azaleas to roses blooms all at once, the winter garden offers a subtle beauty, one that’s quieter and requires that we take a closer look to appreciate its charms.
Winter is also the ideal time to appreciate the “bones” of the garden. A well designed garden uses architecture and plants to define spaces and provide structure. By incorporating paths, fences, walls, hedges and a variety of plants, both evergreen and deciduous, with interesting forms, textures and blooms, both colorful and sweetly scented, your garden is bound to please year around. As a garden designer friend of mine put it once, “if your garden looks good in winter, than it probably looks great in July too.”
There’s something special about plants that brave the cold and reward us with flowers when we least expect them. Some are not only colorful but fragrant too. Depending on where you live (what hardiness zone) here are a few “nose pleasers “ to consider. What wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, lacks in grace, it more than makes up for with its sweetly scented (somewhat spicy) translucent yellow flowers, stained purple in the center, that appear as early as December and often continue into February or March. Site this easy-to-grow shrub at the back of a border in full sun or part shade and enjoy!
Another fragrant favorite for southern climes is Japanese flowering apricot, Prunus mume. I grow this scented beauty for its flowers (the fruits are not tasty) and new bark that is a rich green color.
Selections like ‘Bonita’ put on a show in February with striking pink flowers against brilliant blue skies. A fast growing small tree, give it plenty of space. There are single and double flowered forms, all are delightful.
One whiff of the intoxicating scent of winter daphne, Daphne odora, and you’ll be hooked. This evergreen shrub (3-5’) is a favorite of southern gardeners and the good news is you can grow it in a container (outside) or plant it in the ground. They appreciate good drainage but can be finicky regardless. Even if they die for no apparent reason, as they sometimes do, this is one plant worth replacing.
I love trees and especially those that offer not only beautiful blooms and colorful foliage but interesting forms and structure. And, once they shed their leaves, bark that takes center stage. Some like Japanese Stewartia, Stewartia pseudocamellia, have bark that adds excitement to the winter garden with its peeling patchwork of colors. Another favorite that also offers patchy and exfoliating (peeling) bark is the Persian parrotia, Parrotia persica. Its small but showy maroon-red flowers are a welcome sight on a late winter day.
With shiny peeling cinnamon bark the paperbark maple, Acer griseum is a guaranteed showstopper. Other gardenworthy candidates for their winter bark include crapemyrtles, lacebark elm, Ulmus parvifolia and Japanese maples like the coralbark maple, Acer palmatum ‘Sangu Kaku.’
The native river birch, Betula nigra is a spectacular beauty with its papery, peeling bark in shades of salmon, cinnamon and white. Look for selections like ‘Heritage’ and ‘Dura-Heat.’ Give this tree ample space, (except for dwarf cultivars) as it quickly becomes a large tree, not a good choice for a foundation plant.
Whether your garden is large or small, make sure you include at least a few plants that shine in winter.