I've long wondered about this issue. Certainly, as a serious gardener who deals with a long period of winter every year, I wouldn't want to overlook a major portion of the year if it were possible to enjoy my garden then. Perhaps if I just planted the right things, I'd have all sorts of interesting areas to look at in my gardens from December through early March.
I decided to take another look at the four books I own on the subject:
Rosemary Verey's book is filled with many beautiful photos of her legendary Cotswolds English garden at Barnsley House, mostly formal shrubbery covered with snow, naturalistic areas sparkling with frost, and a "Winter Corner" filled with early flowers such as hellebores, snowdrops, winter aconite, crocus, early narcissus, etc. Plus, she tells of cozy winter activities in her lovely greenhouse, and jobs one can do in winter that free up time in spring, such as trimming hedges and the like. Her garden has winter lows like US Zone 8b, lows of 15 to 20F.
Susy Bales' book is similarly filled with lovely photos of her Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY garden in the snowy months. Numerous pictures show evergreens, berries, brightly-colored twigs, and cute, colorful bulbs poking up from the snow in February. Her area is Zone 7a, lows of 0 to 5F.
Eluned Price's book features winter photos of many of England's most famous gardens taken by well-known garden photographer, Clive Nichols. Concluding is a Winter Plant Directory, with winter bloomers such as camellias, daphnes, mahonias, and the usual early bulbs. Few of the flowering shrubs she recommends are hardy below Zone 7, but she prefaces the section with an admonition to "take everything you hear about zones with a dish, rather than a pinch, of salt."
This book, part of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden series, is a collection of short chapters on various topics related to winter gardening, each written by a different author, mostly from the eastern (several from Philadephia, Zone 7B) and southern United States. However, a chapter about Minnesota winter gardening, which relates how interesting shrubs can look completely buried in three feet of snow, and one by an author in Michigan, who writes about trees and provides many closeups of bark and twigs, are included.
And Amazon lists at least half a dozen other books on winter gardening, which shows us that this is a popular topic in gardening. But I think you can probably see the pattern with these books: they are nearly all written by people who garden in relatively mild-winter areas.
In Zone 7 and higher, winter can probably be somewhat enjoyable, and many herbaceous plants remain evergreen in those conditions. Our winter of 2011-2012 was an exceptionally mild one, and many plants held their leaves all winter. It was fun to walk around in the mild temperatures and see all the green color. Crocus were blooming by early March and daffodils by mid-March. We had tulips by the last week of March!
|This was NOT normal for Iowa! (Although it was very nice.)|
The posts I've recently been reading by British bloggers show that they already have numerous flowers in their gardens, which is simply mindboggling to a Midwestern gardener. They are able to make beautiful bouquets with the flowers and leaves in their gardens, and could enjoy all manner of blooms the day after Christmas(!). English gardeners have more flowers in their gardens now than we have green leaves. Their winter (this is apparently a mild one) is basically equivalent to our spring, and who doesn't love spring?
My conclusions are these: If you like the idea of including winter interest in your garden, you should include it if one or both of these conditions is true:
- If you enjoy being outside in your winter
- If you garden in zone 7 or higher
But I sometimes think that people living in mild-winter areas don't really understand just how bad winters can be in other places. Right now in my location, it's a sunny noontime, but it's windy and -2F (resulting in a wind chill of -22F, which is equivalent to -30C). These kind of temperatures can kill a person in short order (exposed skin will freeze in 30 minutes).
Humans shouldn't be out in these conditions, and certainly aren't going to enjoy the "winter interest" in their gardens. Yes, it's often nicer than this, but it rarely gets much above freezing in January and February and it's often quite windy too. And I live in Zone 5B, a fairly "mild" part of the Midwest, and feel fortunate compared to my friends north of me.
(On a related garden rant, I've read comments from gardeners in England who seem to be annoyed that all we Americans talk about is hardiness zones -- like Eluned Price, above, who clearly thinks zones are an exaggerated over-reaction to a little bit of cold weather. Yes, Americans do understand about microclimates, and that other factors such as drainage and soil type are important too. But a microclimate isn't going to allow me to grow many of the most beautiful early flowering shrubs -- although I did plant a Camellia that is hardy to zone 6 last year! I'm sure most British gardeners wouldn't want to spend their money planting tropical trees outside each year, only to see them die each winter, even if our gardening friends in Brazil tell us how easy they are to grow.)
|April Rose, hardy to Zone 6A.|
I hope it survives the winter!
(Camellia Forest Nursery)
Don't get me wrong, planting hardy early bulbs and flowering shrubs is great no matter where you live. They will still be the first things that bloom in your garden, and why wouldn't you want things blooming as early as possible? Gardeners just need to understand that if you live in Zones 5, 4 or 3 (bless you, my long-suffering friends), these "winter bloomers" will not bloom in "winter," that's all. Winter ends on March 21st, and only rarely do my crocus bloom before mid-March. I'm happy enough to see them, of course, whenever they appear, but I don't regard that time as winter. March means Spring!
I do totally understand why southern gardeners would regard winter as one of the best times of year, because it becomes so searingly hot in summer that they simply can't go outdoors to enjoy their gardens then. It's exactly like our winters, only it's the heat that's life-threatening, not the cold. I wish our southern friends many deliciously cool days in this time of year to enjoy their gardens. But that's not how it works here.
Since I don't enjoy being outside unless it's sunny, above freezing and not windy -- and those conditions rarely occur here in winter, perhaps once a month -- I haven't spent much effort planting trees with interesting bark or brightly-colored twigs. To me, gardening means flowers, or at the very least, lush foliage. Yes, berries are interesting, for about two minutes (thirty seconds if it's below freezing and windy). Perhaps I simply lack a positive attitude.
And including evergreen shrubs planted in patterns, formal or informal, does provide a more interesting view out of our windows in winter than cut-down herbaceous plants (leaving some standing over winter gives a bit more to look at as well). But there still aren't any flowers -- the major reason I garden. Rather than have unrealistic expectations of my gardens to give me something they simply can't provide, I choose instead to just take a break from gardening in winter.
|A quick snapshot today before my face froze off. This is certainly more interesting to look at than flat garden beds, but still not anything I'd venture outside to see.|
My winter suggestions for gardeners living in zones 5 and colder (I'm doing all of these things this winter):
- Get a winter hobby, an interesting one that occupies you during the cold months and doesn't require going out.
- Purchase cut flowers and potted bulbs. In the past, I've tried to avoid "wasting" money on flowers that will only last a few days, but I've now come to the conclusion that having flowers, especially fragrant ones, at least every other week, can make the winter more enjoyable. I've also potted up some bulbs for forcing this winter, and will see how that works.
- Read garden books filled with glorious photos of spring and summer gardens. You know, those of the pure "garden porn" variety, such as this one (most of the book can be viewed) that you don't even need to read (it's just for the pictures!).
- Leave. Spend a week or even a few days someplace warm, like Florida, south Texas or southern California. Do this in late February if you can, when no one else is traveling and prices are cheap. Sit outside in the sunshine, sip a fun rum-based drink and marvel at the greenery and flowers around you. Visit a botanic garden if you're so inclined and admire the incredible (and sometimes just weird) things that will grow there. This will break up the winter and really help, even if it can be brutal coming back to -5 degree temperatures.
- Sit by the woodburning stove with a warm cat on your lap and think about what you want to accomplish in your gardens when spring comes.
|I'll be right back, Tigger!|
I still love living and gardening in Iowa, and we have many gardening advantages, but winter gardening just isn't one of of them.
Here's to a short winter, and all the interest that spring brings. Thanks for reading! -Beth
Here's to a short winter, and all the interest that spring brings. Thanks for reading! -Beth