Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Winter Interest in the Garden: Does it Exist?

There have been two posts over at GardenRant in the last couple of days, The Myth of Winter Interest, and a post in response, Forcing Winter Interest. Both posts have ignited a flurry of comments in further response -- everyone has feelings about the subject, it seems. Is "winter interest" realistic?

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:
  1. If you enjoy being outside in your winter
  2. If you garden in zone 7 or higher
Obviously, if the winters in your area seem enjoyable enough to take walks in, by all means plant things to look at during the winter months.

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):

  1. Get a winter hobby, an interesting one that occupies you during the cold months and doesn't require going out.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!).
  4. 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.
  5. 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

22 comments:

  1. I have the Rosemary Verey book and the Clive Nichols one too. There are so many plants you can grow for winter interest and I wouldn't, dream of having nothing to look at in the garden for months on end. Winter flowering plants are the most precious of all. But I realise how difficult it is for you. Until I started blogging I had no idea just how cold it gets in winter over there. I can understand that you don' t want to linger outside in cold weather, specially when you have a cosy room with a wood burner and plenty of books. I hope you can get outside and enjoy your garden before long.

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    1. Thanks, Chloris -- I appreciate your sympathy and understanding. I wasn't trying to whine about how cold it gets here, only to point out that things that bloom in winter in mild climates don't bloom until spring here, so "winter-blooming" doesn't actually exist here. (I'd sure love it if it did!). Thanks for reading. -Beth

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  2. Great post!

    I only recently started reading your blog because I was interested in what it was like to garden in Iowa. I agree with Chloris, I had no little knowledge of a long cold winter. Where I garden in southern California January is a comfortable, beautiful time in the garden. Right now it is 80F. I cannot imagine -1F. I couldn't figure out the lure of house plants and greenhouses, but now I have a little better understanding.

    I also agree with those who want something pretty (to them) when they look out the window, be it flowers or foliage, why else garden?

    But, best of all I liked your reply to Andy. We have people who "ooze moral superiority" here, too, namely the native plant horticulture group. (I've been wanting to use that phrase ever since I read it a while back!)

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    1. Hi Jane, Thanks for visiting! I like your blog too and am looking forward to reading more of your posts. If you're interested in what it's like to garden in Iowa, I've added a link at the end of this post to an earlier post that describes some of what I think are the nice things about gardening here (it's not just long, cold winters!).

      And Andy's GardenRant comment was indeed totally over the top. I'm sure in California you have a nauseating amount of moral superiority oozing everywhere -- nice phrase BTW -- to deal with. It's almost synonymous with the name of your state.... :-)

      I'm glad to hear from another gardener who gardens for beauty. Thanks! -Beth

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    2. Thanks for adding that extra link. Helps to know that stuff. I've made a page of what's going on here: http://janestrong.blogspot.com/

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  3. Hi Beth, This is a heartfelt and informative post. Of course, living just down the road from you an hour or two, I fully understand Iowa winters. While I don't really "garden" in winter, I do enjoy looking out the window where I see conifers large and small, a few berries, ornamental grasses, hardscape and many birds enjoying my feeders. I've been perusing seed and garden catalogs and am getting ready to order seeds. I've decided to start my zinnias inside this year.
    Blessings, Beth

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    1. Hi Beth, It's good to hear from another Iowan who understands, and I'm glad you have some enjoyable winter scenes to view out your windows until spring comes. What fun --ordering seeds is so exciting! Let me know how starting zinnias inside goes; I've never known whether it would actually give them a head start or whether the transplanting might set them back enough to offset the earlier start. Here's a link I found about starting them inside: http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/load/annuals/msg0214531830773.html that might be helpful. Thanks for reading! -Beth

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  4. Ha, great post! I used to garden in NC in zone 7b. I had daffodils blooming as early as January and February. Camellias and winter jasmine were hardy there. It was easy to have a winter garden. Now I live in zone 6a in MA. TOTAL difference!! I do think it's good to have something for winter interest, just so that your house doesn't look totally barren to people who are passing by (like mine currently does.) However, those evergreens or anything else we plant isn't going to hold our interest for 5 whole snowy months. The truth? Winter interest isn't for the gardener up north - it's maybe for people who are passing by our house. You are correct, we Northern gardeners just have to get other hobbies :) I even have a hobby greenhouse - but it's too expensive to heat right now, as cold as the weather is. I'll heat it back up when I grow seedlings in late February or March and it's not so miserably cold!

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    1. Indie, I had no idea there was such a difference between zones 7 and 6, but I suppose you were on the far extremes of each. But I'm not surprised. I'm sorry you're having an understandably hard time adapting to the change. And I'm also sorry to hear about the difficulties in heating your beautiful new greenhouse, but I'm sure it will be better in late winter, when you need it for starting seeds. Thanks for reading! -Beth

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  6. Dear Beth - For some reason I was surprised to see your snow fall, but it does look lovely when it first arrives. So far the snows have past us by and it is incredibly mild, but never, say never.
    I must tell you that I know Rosemary Verey's garden very well, it is just across the Cotswold hills from where I live. When we first moved here and discovered our oolitic limestone ground we did not know how to get through it in order to plant. Rosemary very kindly helped us, and I shall always be grateful to her for that. She told my husband to take a pick axe to the ground and hack his way through it, and then fill the hole with good compost - needless to say everything has flourished well under her instructions.
    She died in 2001 and her beautiful home and garden have now become a boutique hotel, but fortunately they do maintain and respect the garden she designed and keep it exactly as she did.

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    1. Rosemary, That's so wonderful that you live so close to Barnsley House and even knew Rosemary Verey! I have a number of her books and have read the biography of her that was published a year or two ago. I'm so happy to hear that she helped you begin gardening. I someday want to visit her famous garden, even in its current state. Thanks for reading! -Beth

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  7. Hi Beth... You've been here... we hardly have room to place furniture since virtually every exterior wall is windows that I installed specifically since I love the views from the house... I am not a winter person... the cold bothers my heart and lungs but I still enjoy the 'winter interest' of the gardens.... I can't tell you how many times a day I go to a window and pause to look at what's happening in the gardens... enjoying the views and the birds in particular.... as far as a winter hobby... these days my glasswork has been involving eight to twelve hours daily, working on my Tiffany Reproduction lamps.... sometimes it seems like the winter goes by faster than the summer months which is a bit of a concern as the years disappear and I dream of what that 'new magnolia' might look like in fifteen years from now!! Friends, Larry

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    1. Hi Larry, I agree, looking out the window is important during the winter, even when there's a foot of snow covering everything. I've tried to plant some evergreen shrubs to see outside each window so there will be something to look at. Not too many birds here, as Puppy tends to get them, so I don't put out feeders. I'm glad you have much to occupy you over the cold months and that they pass quickly enough that you don't feel cooped up. I can't wait to see what your new magnolia looks like too! Thanks for reading! -Beth

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  8. Not much to do here in winter when you average 120 inches of snow...just got 18 inches in 5 hrs off the lake and sub-zero temps. I have plants that give winter interest even in snow and seedheads for birds, but my only gardening is indoors.

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    1. Donna, That's a LOT of snow! That dwarfs what we got here, certainly. I hope it provides good insulation for your plants in these cold temps. It's nice to have things to look at outside your windows, I agree -- and we're also in agreement that staying inside is prudent when it's cold! Thanks for stopping by, -Beth

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  9. Beth, Thanks for a great post. I'm in Zone 5 in Wisconsin so I am familiar with everything you say. But I am a big proponent of winter interest. You inspired me to write my own post.
    http://eachlittleworld.typepad.com/each_little_world/2015/01/winter-interest-yes-please.html

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  10. Great post! The color in that area rug in the last photo is stunning! Is that lime green?! I love it. That room looks so warm and cozy. I think the best winter interest is water of some sort. It freezes, it thaws, the snow makes interesting formations on chunks of ice. I guess really I look at winter interest as things that will look pretty and interesting covered in snow. That's the only time I find the winter landscape particularly interesting! Brrrr -10 here and snowing.

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    1. Hi Stephen, I'm afraid the colors in the photo are not true to life -- I had to wait to ask my husband when he came home this evening (I'm slightly color-blind myself), but it's more of a green-tinged gold color than lime green. And I agree, water can be very interesting in all seasons; no garden is really complete without a water feature, they say. I sympathize with your cold days. Thanks for stopping by and keep warm! -Beth

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  11. I would like to suggest you add The Prairie Winterscape to your garden-in-winter book collection. I reviewed it here.

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    1. Hi Kathy, Thanks for the recommendation! I was not aware of this book, and have just ordered a reasonably-priced used copy of it to add to my growing collection of these books (I have found several more since I wrote this, and this will be number 10!). Nice review you wrote too. Thanks for visiting, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. -Beth

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