Thursday, July 20, 2017  

The Winter Garden


Gardens in winter have a special look all their own. Garden spaces that command our attention and physical presence during the spring, summer and fall now present a changing format. Gone are the times of endless weeding and grooming with the goal of perfectly groomed garden borders. Days shorten and the sun causes shadows to stretch and darkness to dominate more of our twenty four hours. Focus is often turned inward. Reading, watching football and other sports on TV, movies and board games take on a new priority. Along with these changes arises a new opportunity to view the winter garden.

Views require a viewpoint. Deciding on the placement of plant material is most effective if time is taken in the planning stages. Similar to the process of pruning, the gardener needs to stand back frequently and clearly see the objective. Examine the area you would like to see, not while out in the yard walking around, but from the inside of your home or as you walk to the front door or enter the driveway. These are the views in the wintertime. Strategic placement of lighting can augment all plant material. Uplights, placed at the base of plantings or along paths or the newer moon lights, placed in trees to simulate moonlight, give magical effects to established plantings and nighttime interest year round.


 The soft browns of winter grasses offer a wonderful background for the showy red bark of red twig dogwood (Cornus alba). This shrub is mostly unnoticed in the summer, blending in as a nondescript green mid-sized bush. Cut it down sharply to less than a foot in height in the early spring and then allow it to grow all summer and fall. When the leaves fall and cooler temperatures prevail, the branches of new growth turn a bright red and add real contrast.  

The soft beige textured bark of river birch (Betula nigra) contrasts well with winter berry holly (Ilex verticillata) while creating an outstanding vista. This ilex is deciduous, losing its leaves in winter and exposing long branches covered in bright berries that can be red, coral or lavender. Ilex verticillata requires plantings of one male plant to every female for berry production. This is known in the plant world as being dioicous, having male and female flowers on separate plants. And speaking of beautiful winter textured bark, give paperbark maple (Acer griseum) a chance. Its rich golden brown pealing bark is a treat during the winter when the showy trunk is no longer shaded by the leaf canopy.

Consider planting one or several of the variegated hollies. Ilex aquifolium “Silver Queen,” with its delightful silver-white edged leaves or the gold-hued ilex crenata “Variegata” both add depth in any garden especially when they are layered against deep green background plant material. Many gardeners are familiar with the two kinds of trees and shrubs pertaining to leaves. The names deciduous and evergreen can be misleading. Deciduous plants drop their leaves as the sun drops lower in the sky and the hours of daylight lessen, not because of the changes in air temperature. Evergreens on the other hand are not or certainly not necessarily…evergreen that is! Some are, but a myriad of plants bear leaves or needles of gold, silver, blue or bronze hues. Chamaecyparis or false cypress bears foliage of many colors ranging from blue-green to golden and everything in between. When combined with dwarf Nandina “firepower” whose feathery leaves are golden in summer and turn to a deep red in the wintertime, it will light up a cool day. Now try mixing these in your gardens and let them shine in the winter. Picture them with a light dusting of snow or a heavy frost…in the sunshine of the next day…or combined in a planting of dark green with a highbush blueberry  

Vaccinium corymbosum) and its winter show of burgundy-tinted branches. Ah, yes, gardening is a treat to the senses! Who says the wintertime is gray or blah? Bundle up and walk a nature trail. Poke under dried leaves to expose wild ginger (Asarum canadense) with its beautiful heart-shaped leaves and tiny brown barrel fruit. Witch hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana), our native, can burst its willowy branches into golden blooms any time from September to December. In the South you can never mention color in the winter without including a southern tradition. Camellias! Camellias have graced many a table. The flowers are classified in many types. There are single, semi-double, irregular double, anemone and peony form. This glorious evergreen shrub comes in two main varieties. Camellia sasanqua blooms in the fall or early winter. Camellia japonica blooms in the early spring. They come in delicious versions of single and double blooms in deep reds, pinks, sophisticated whites and a mixture of those colors tinting each other (pinks with yellow edges and center and on and on). Camellias prefer a sheltered area and semi-shade. They grow well against walls and even in containers. They need well-drained, neutral to slightly acidic soil. Almost all camellias grow in zones 7 to 8. They are so simple and elegant that along with their glossy green foliage they make a statement in any arrangement and in any garden.


Have you noticed how a beautiful tapestry, handmade lace or hand knit baby blankets always invite touch? Plants are like that. With the sound exception of cactus or thorny plants, most horticultural specimens invite the gentle laying on of fingers. With landscaping, texture can involve touch but more often refers to sight. The “look” of mixed textures of large glossy leaves, soft willowy grasses and/ or branches and short leaved specimens heightens the interest in a garden. Texture also allows light, shadows, snow and ice to augment its effect. For the most appealing plantings mix sizes, shapes and textures. That applies to all plantings, containers, gardens and especially the winter garden Birch Forest where texture is so very important. Witch Hazel

 The Promise of Spring

So all of this wintertime stuff is OK, but following the holidays and cleaning out the closets and ordering seeds from catalogs and the parties and going to warmer climates and all…it can get old! So how about a little hope of things to come. Most gardening souls begin with a quick trip outside to “poke”. This is a highly tuned skill requiring the ability to gently poke ones foot or finger under a leaf or overhanging branch or soft drift of snow for any evidence that this winter stuff is not going to go on forever. And the wonders you can find! Look for the earliest of crocus, Hellebores (Christmas and Lenten rose) and even an early daffodil turning its head skyward with the promise of new life.


Whether new to gardening or an old hand, most of us will admit that there’s always something new to learn. “If you retain only one new idea from this year’s gardening in the northern neck seminar,” said chair janice mahoney, “it just could make the difference between the garden you get and the garden you wish for.”

 “It’s no accident we have this seminar in late march,” said mahoney, “when gardeners in this area are rethinking their gardening strategies based on last year’s successes and failures, scanning the catalogs for what to plant, and beginning to prepare their beds.”  

  This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the seminar, with many in the audience coming year after year. “They return not just for the presentations,” according to mahoney, “but also for the opportunity to interact with like minded enthusiasts and local vendors and build momentum for the coming growing season – which by march is barely weeks away.”  

 The 2013 program focuses on fundamental principles and strategies and will bring some well-known faces to the northern neck. “We’ve got a great lineup of speakers,” said mahoney, “who will address the basics of gardening, the joys of edible plants in the home landscape, and the dangers trees face from overzealous property owners.” Speaker mark viette will discuss crucial elements for a successful garden, from design, to soil preparation, planting and maintenance. In addition to operating his own nursery and garden center in fishersville, Virginia, viette conducts workshops and lectures on assorted gardening topics, has authored several books and hosts a weekly radio talk show. He invites the public to visit his farm and nursery where he has surrounded his home and garden center with an extensive display of gardens of all kinds. Using edible plants for decoration and nutrition (“edible landscaping”) is an aspect of the local food movement that is catching on with home gardeners. Michael mcconkey, a well known advocate and practitioner of this approach, will share his insights about the attributes of edible plants and their role in providing beauty, form and nutrition to our landscapes. Mcconkey’s edible landscaping operation in afton, Virginia, just south of waynesboro, started as a small mail order nursery. It is now credited with introducing many new fruiting plants into american gardens. The nursery offers a large variety of plants (both common and unusual), as well as learning opportunities for the public, on site and on the internet. Speaking on “how we hurt the trees we love,” certified arborist joseph murray will examine some ways trees deal with less than desirable growing situations and how being parsimonious with our “care” may be in the best interest of trees. “So many times,” according to murray, “trees are doing fine until someone perceives the need to do something resulting in real anatomical and physiological tree disorders.” Murray teaches biology at the shenandoah valley’s blue ridge community college and travels the united states as a tree biology educator.  

The gardening in the northern neck seminar will be held on saturday, march 23, 2013, from 8:45 to 3:00 pm at the church of the nazarene in white stone, Virginia. Registration is $25 by mail and $30 at the door. To register for the seminar, call the northumberland cooperative extension office at (804) 580-5694 or access the northern neck master gardeners’ website at www.Nnmg.Org. Virginia master gardeners are horticultural educators, administered by local Virginia cooperative extension agents. Virginia cooperative extension is an agency of Virginia tech and Virginia state university.  

 (Virginia Cooperative Extension is a joint program of Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state and local governments. Virginia Cooperative Extension programs and employment are open to all, regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. If you are a person with a disability and desire any assistive devices, services or other accommodations to participate in this activity, please contact the Northumberland County Extension Office at 804-580-5694 during business hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to discuss accommodations 5 days prior to the event.” *TDD number is (800) 828-1120.)