Garden Life: Even in depths of winter, gardens remain full of life



The greatest distinction between a gardener and a non-gardener is the non-gardener’s belief that nothing grows in winter. Some people actually believe that there is nothing in bloom, nothing to do and nothing of interest going on in the winter garden. I can assure you that come rain, snow or gloom, a morning walk around a well-planted garden can be a life-affirming experience.

For me, a morning garden walk is the first step toward a sense of well being. With my neighbor’s dog Roxy, a steadfast and true friend in every season, and a parade of cats so inclined to join us, we scour the garden for winter delights. Within a month, the buds of assorted Sasanqua camellias will be fat to bursting with red, white and seashell pink blossoms.

Only in the midst of winter will we find Viburnum bodnantense “Dawn” in full flower, with dainty bundles of sweetly fragrant blossoms the color and scent of cotton candy. At the driveway dogleg, the arthritically twisted, fingerlike blossoms of the witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia “Jelena” are quite lovely on closer inspection. This winter bloomer sports petals shooting out of leafless branches in metallic colors of orange, bronze, and copper.

By definition in Webster’s Dictionary, “Winter is the coldest season of the year, extending from the end of autumn to the beginning of spring.” I can accept this bare-boned description. I cannot, however, agree with the following information, “… a time marked by lack of life, warmth and cheer.”

For those of us who garden in the Northwest, this simply isn’t true.

As a devout plant collector who intentionally adds plants to my garden that come to life in winter, nothing could be further from the truth. One of the most beautiful flowering plants in my garden is the perennial hellebore, also known as Christmas or Lenten Rose. It blooms in mid-winter and often lasts well into spring. No garden in the Pacific Northwest should be without a selection of hellebores which bloom in white, cream, pink, burgundy and all shades of purple.

Structure on display

For winter interest, when flower production is low, choose backbone plants that take on a more structural display to match the mood of the season. The horizontal branching of the Chinese and Korean dogwoods (Cornus chinensis and C. kousa) and the Viburnum plicatum “Shasta,” fill a space with distinct, angular lines.

Another good shrub for the winter garden is Pernettya mucronata, a broadleaf evergreen with leaves that are glossy green for most of the year, occasionally bronze in the midst of chilly winter. Its common name is Prickly Heath, because it’s a member of the ericaceae family, which includes heaths and heathers. The shape of its leaves, which are small and pointed but are not stickers, might suggest that they are prickly.

One reason to plant pernettya is for its small white and pink bell-shaped flowers in late spring and the wonderful, white, pink, lilac and red berries that follow in late fall and hold on all the way through winter and beyond. Sometimes my plants have berries all year round. The berries, which often have a shiny, metallic sheen, seem to grow larger with each new year.

Pernettya grows 2 feet to 5 feet tall in compact thickets that spread by underground runners. It is best in sun to part shade and loves moist, acid soil. It also tolerates wind and wet conditions. You can keep it confined to a small area of the garden by containing its roots or if it spreads too far in your garden, cut into the roots with a flat head shovel and share the wealth with a friend.

To have character, a plant does not have to be rare. The native vine maple (Acer circinatum) is a must for the Northwest garden. Even the smallest garden benefits from the stature of a tree and the vine maple is one that can be effective as a tightly pruned specimen in a large patio container or planted en masse in a suburban backyard to create the feel of a woodland setting.

Acer circinatum “Monroe” is also available as a distinct alternative to the basic Northwest native. Like other vine maples, “Monroe” can be kept to a low-branching, shrubby stature by pruning. It features rounded, deeply cut leaves with distinct, red horizontal winged fruits and spectacular orange-scarlet autumn color. Its diminutive stature makes a charming canopy for low-growing ferns and other woodland shade plants.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at