Taking Steps Toward a Winter Garden

At the top of my driveway, slightly hidden on a south-facing slope that could less generously be termed a rocky mound, there is a small gathering of snowdrops and eranthis poking up amongst the stones and the chickweed.  This grouping is visible only to those that pass our entranceway; and as this is not a common occurrence, it can go unappreciated.  

 

eranthis and galanthus, snowdrops and winter aconite

 

I am proud of it – so proud I stopped my brush clearing for a moment on Sunday to carefully observe the reaction of a lone runner who was passing by.  It is notoriously difficult to get these athletic types to stop for traffic, much less flowers, but stop she did – without coaching on my part.  And as her pace picked up shortly thereafter, I must assume that the moment’s pause signified delight in the unexpected rather than a lackadaisical commitment to her sport.

But there is more to it – as no doubt  you knew there would be. The grouping signifies a large step in this gardener’s life, and one that not every gardener decides to take, no matter how skilled their spring and summer efforts over a lifetime. It signifies a commitment to a four-season garden.

midwinter fire cornus

‘Midwinter Fire’ Cornus sanguinea (Photo taken at Montrose Garden in Hillsborough, NC)

I have a large landscape and little time.  Planting an insignificant amount of winter-blooming flowers that will delight only a few could be considered pure folly.

Even I have to remind myself at this time of year to go find them and I’m the one who dug them in.  But in this digging I took the first steps in my four-season vision for Oldmeadow, and with time and further plantings, the insignificant will become something more.

Perhaps you are dismissive of the above.  Who needs a four-season garden when we have three perfectly good seasons we can fill with flowers and fragrance; and a house we can fill with armchairs and duvets during the other three months?

I used to feel similarly, and righteously so. I had limited space and limited desire, and my first foray into home and garden ownership didn’t begin with the gentle caress of an early English spring, but with the icy embrace of a Mid-Atlantic winter.  I could see little point in improving a cold, dormant landscape that made up the space ‘twixt car and front door.

It was only through visiting other landscapes better than my own that I began to understand the importance of the winter garden and to see it as a unique and special entity – not as a middle child constantly compared to brilliant siblings. It is a garden that gives far more than it receives.

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

hellebore, mahonia, rohdea

Mahonia, rohdea and hellebores in February at Montrose Garden in Hillsborough, NC

Though many of us are busy during this time of year tidying up beds, sharpening edges and pruning trees, our labors are intended to enhance our spring and summer displays.

When those seasons appear, we will not stop our efforts – indeed they must increase in the face of relentless growth.  The work is never-ending, but the carrot is fat and crisp and most of us chase it gladly.

In contrast, the winter garden does not ask this of us.  It simply undresses quietly and waits to be admired.  What is here, was here – it is no longer hidden by foliage and flower.

If you planted various cornus species to control erosion, you will find your slopes covered in twigs of red and yellow. If you planted ‘Sango-kaku’ Japanese maple because of the light-catching foliage, you will be gifted with bright coral stems and branches in late fall.  Your textured conifers will become punctuation marks. Your carex ‘fillers’ will become the main show.

And, contrasted against the browns and greys of a winter landscape, they will all become magnificent – they will all become more.

Thus the greatest effort expended upon the winter garden is not that of weeding or watering – it is choosing wisely in the first place.  

miscanthus sinensis gracillimus

Grasses aren’t just for summer.

 

Certainly we can leave it there.  We can enjoy this passive space filled with delights we hardly deserve. But often, such pleasures spark an interest in the gardener to build upon this foundation. Winter blooming flowers and bulbs are usually the next step; and with my snowdrops and my eranthis, with my hellebores and my cyclamen, I am making that commitment.

 

edgeworthia chrysantha

My edgeworthia is now twice this tall and wide, and makes quite a statement on the walk up to my front door.

 

I will not for a moment pretend that this has taken any skill on my part.  The only difficulty in growing the above lies in knowing when to manually divide them to increase one’s stock.  And one’s stock must be increased, for one’s salary rarely is.

Neither will I pretend that these are expensive beauties hardly seen in the landscape.  Though they all have swanky relatives (rare snowdrops can sell for hundreds, even thousands), none are represented here, lest they be lost in a large landscape and there be much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Hence the current absence of Adonis, and a tendency when it comes to hellebores to favor the promiscuous H. orientalis over expensive and exciting nigercors crosses.

 

hellebore

Hellebore blossoms float in a bowl of water at Pine Knot Farms, Clarksville, VA

I am choosing my spots carefully.  Some of these low-growers link to other, larger winter shrubs (hellebores under edgeworthia); some have begun the process of populating large areas (cyclamen in the sunken woods); and still others – such as the eranthis and snowdrops hidden at the top of the drive where we began this tale – are intended to impress in the same way as a carefully selected scarf draped casually around one’s neck might do.  “This?  Oh I just threw that on.”

It is a slow and steady race that could someday result in a valley full of winter color – color that stops even the leanest and meanest of runners and makes them walk a while in contemplation. __________________________________________________________
This article was originally published in The Frederick News Post and is republished here with kind permission.  

By | 2019-02-22T21:41:59+00:00 February 22nd, 2019|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.

2 Comments

  1. Paula L. February 23, 2019 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    Have you read Elizabeth Lawrence’s A Southern Garden? She starts with winter, and the pleasure of winter bloom. Then her Gardens in Winter is all about winter gardens (across the country.) but those first 2 chapters in A Southern Garden would be where I’d start. A snippet of a quote from one of them: “Winter’s sometime smiles.” And of course one is also reminded of The Secret Garden. I

    • Marianne Willburn February 23, 2019 at 3:39 pm - Reply

      Yes, I have – Elizabeth Lawrence is one of my favorite garden writers, and one of the reasons I started to think about paying more attention to my own winter garden ‘Little Bulbs’ is possibly my favorite. Can’t recommend her enough. Thanks for the comment.

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