If it’s possible, I think I love my garden best in winter and find it more exciting than in spring. That’s because something is in flower, and most often it is fragrant, nearly every sunny, warm day from Christmas week on. Spring, when everything explodes into flower at once, can be overwhelming. So much is happening that it all becomes a big blur. But in January and February, the garden slows down, and it is easier to appreciate and luxuriate in each of the garden’s treasures.
What could be more seductive than catching the scent wafting from wintersweet, witch hazels, winter honeysuckle, Prunus mume, a half-dozen different winter-blooming daphnes, and the edgeworthia. If it’s too cold and snowy to be out and about the garden, as it often was this winter, sprigs in a small vase can perfume our rooms through the darkest, shortest days.
Outdoors, many plants need only a warm, sunny day or two to unfurl their blooms. Flowers of the early witch hazels hug themselves tight in frigid weather, but spring back into full bloom in no time at all.
If you select the right plants and find warm niches, you can be rewarded with the first crocuses, hellebores, and snowdrops. I don’t remember planting a bulb there, but every December an expanding clump of crocuses comes through in a raised south-facing bed filled with gravel. At one point in January, a group of buds was ready to open within a day or two, but they then were covered with snow. When the snow finally melts, they will emerge undamaged.
Another couple of clumps will quickly follow. They are planted near the edge of a stone terrace, facing south. Squirrels, chipmunks, and voles don’t seem to find them there. Some years they flower before New Year’s.
You may have read that the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, may be difficult to grow. That certainly is not true here, where they happily self-seed. I try many different ones as some will flower very early, even in early December if you are lucky. However, I’ve found they are inconsistent in their flowering period, which accounts for wanting as many different forms as possible.
Some of the new hybrids that have H. niger in their breeding also flower early and withstand the winter weather. You get double your money with some that have glorious marbled foliage in addition to their flowers. Go to the Pine Knot Farms website and look through the section called Interspecies Hybrids; only your bank account will restrain you from ordering them all.
Another plant group that is difficult to resist is the witch hazels. Some are early bloomers, opening the beginning of January; others begin the third week of January, and the late bloomers open in late February and can extend their flowering until early April.
Three of my favorites are Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese witch hazel, which becomes quite large at maturity, and two hybrids, H. Arnold Promise, which is vase-shaped, and H. Barmstedt Gold. Each is highly fragrant and has intense yellow flowers. My Barmstedt Gold is still quite young, but it is probably a midseason bloomer with an upright form.
Chinese witch hazels flower early and you can’t go wrong with any of them. It will become broad and spreading in form, and I’ve seen venerable trees that were at least 10 feet high. Wisley Supreme is excellent and readily available. In our area H. Arnold Promise is the classic and perhaps most popular. It was discovered at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and was a favorite of Jim Cross, founder of the now-closed Environmentals Nursery on the North Fork. Arnold Promise, the last of my witch hazels to open, is still one of the best, and it is narrow enough to warrant space in the smallest garden.
Trees with arresting bark are also one of the most rewarding investments you can make to enhance your garden in winter. My two favorites are the paperback maple, Acer griseum, and the Japanese crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia fauriei. The maple is small and slow-growing with neat trifoliate leaves, which turn brilliant red in autumn. The translucent, peeling, reddish brown bark glows when it is backlit by the sun in winter. The bark of the crape myrtle can appear almost black in midwinter; the bark of the more popular hybrids pall in comparison. It is not the easiest of the crape myrtles to obtain, and its main hybrid, Natchez, with exfoliating bark in gray, mahogany, and beige, is a good alternative.
Other trees with good winter bark are the stewartias, the Japanese coral bark maple, Acer palmatum Sango-kaku, and some hybrid snakebark maples, Acer x conspicuum, which turn red in winter. Phoenix is the cultivar sold in the United States, but if you ever run into the hybrids Silver Cardinal or Red Flamingo, beg, borrow, or steal them.
There is no reason and certainly no need for gardens to be dead zones in winter. This may be the time of year we need them most.