I have no right to complain. My garden is not covered with a foot of snow, nor is it buried under a layer of ice, but nevertheless I’m cranky about the state of things. No matter how I might try to write a few cheerful paragraphs about some aspect of winter gardening, I can’t seem to find the words. This winter, my garden is a soggy mess resulting from (a) the 8 degree temps in December and (b) the nonstop rain in January.
In a typical year, February arrives with hellebores in bloom and the citrusy scent of daphne blossoms wafting through the garden. I’ve seen many winter days like this, with crisp temperatures and sparkling sunshine that lures me outside to look for crocuses starting to show color. I have taken all of those days for granted. Today, there will be a few hours of watery sunshine before the clouds return, and with it, more rain.
Needless to say, I have cleaning up to do in my flower garden. All of those plant stems left standing as winter homes for beneficial insects are now mush, offering no shelter to those creatures, and so they should be dispatched to the compost heap. Plants damaged, first by cold, and then by rain, are everywhere. Slime would be an appropriate theme for this garden composition.
Thankfully most of my evergreen shrubs seem unphased by all of the weather drama, a reminder of exactly why one should plant all of those laurels, hollies, and yews that become background players while their showier neighbors are blooming. This is their time to shine, despite their waterlogged surroundings.
Gardeners here cannot stop talking about the cold snap that brought severe cold and wind here several weeks ago. Many mature tea olives and other evergreen plants simply dropped their leaves, something most of us have never witnessed. Three sheets of frost cloth didn’t go far as I tried my best to protect some of my evergreen flowering shrubs, including a new Michelia figo (banana shrub), that I knew would not tolerate temperatures much below 15 degrees.
After some frantic googling one night while fumbling around with the frost cloth, I decided that I’ve perhaps made some risky plant choices in recent years, taking for granted all of those mild winters we’ve had lately. While I’m thankful that I didn’t have more damage, I do wonder which of my dormant plants survived, and which ones I’ve lost. All will be revealed in March and April I suppose.
Until then all we can do is wait patiently, because the worst thing we can do is start trimming whatever it is that looks horrible. It takes great restraint not to do so. Nothing is more humbling than the view out my front window of frost-scorched camellias, still loaded with blackened flower buds. I’ll actually be grateful on the day that the leaves fall off, leaving bare stems.
I’m ever the optimist, no matter how grumpy I may appear, so I know that once spring arrives I’ll see things differently. I’ll make changes, and I’ll also think more carefully about what I’m willing to risk going forward. Maybe I won’t spend $75 on a gorgeous flowering shrub that honestly would prefer to spend the winter in zone 9. For some, this winter’s losses will be a lesson learned, but I suspect that many gardeners will buy that tempting specimen anyway, just to have the chance to watch it grow for a few seasons.
While you and I wait for things to look better out there, here are some things you can do to keep the winter gardening blues at bay:
Buy a new Lenten rose. Every winter about this time I go to my local plant store and choose a new hellebore for my garden and place it next to a large maidenhair fern on a table in my screened porch, so that I can admire it from my kitchen table. This year’s selection is called ‘Laura’ and it was love at first sight. She has very tall stems and elegant pink blooms. I’ll move her to the hellebore bed in April where she can settle in before summer heat arrives.
Put on your rubber boots and get out there. I love my old beat up Hunter boots, which remind me of soggy winter days walking my children to and from school in England. They are required footwear in Great Britain due to the damp winter weather. If you don’t own any “wellies” this is an excellent time to buy some. It makes squishing through the garden muck a reminder of childhood days when mud was a glorious thing.
Feed the birds. I’ve put out suet this month in addition to bird seed, which is a good fat source for our feathered friends. I use seed treated with cayenne pepper to keep the squirrels from getting into my feeder.
Trim away old hellebore, epimedium, and fern foliage. Lenten rose foliage starts to look tattered just about the time these perennials begin to bloom, so carefully cut away any sad-looking leaves. If you see black spots on your hellebore leaves, discard them in the trash, as this could be a sign of a bacterial disease that attacks these plants when they are too wet. Don’t panic. Your plants will probably be fine, but be sure to remove the leaves from the your garden.
Epimedium leaves are looking fried from the cold, and you should cut them to the ground before the delicate flower stems emerge in early March.
Evergreen Christmas and autumn ferns are looking tattered this month, so remove any damaged fronds to make way for new growth in a month or two.
Watch the progress of bulbs. This keeps me from getting discouraged and will probably do the same for you. Snowdrops have bloomed already in my garden, and I’m seeing crocuses begin to open up, along with signs of growth from many other types of bulbs.
Try not to worry about cold-damaged shrubs. While I’ve discouraged you from doing any trimming or pruning, no matter how ugly your cold-damaged evergreen shrubs may look today, you can check to see if they are still alive. Use your fingernail and scratch away the bark on a branch. If there is green tissue under the bark, your shrub is alive and will probably leaf out in spring. If a branch becomes brittle and breaks off easily, and no green is present, that branch may be dead. If it has been damaged, the shrub may grow back from the roots, however, so if you can, you may want to wait for a few months to see if there is any new growth at the base of the plant before you do anything drastic.
Hang in there! Spring is on the way.