Grow a Winter Wonderland

Winter in the garden is far from dull. For rain climates, some plants actually look their best during or just after heavy downpours.

Credit: John Glover

Winter in the garden is far from dull: some plants actually look their best during heavy downpours

Ask a gardener to name the winter months and I bet they’ll say November through February, though true winter commences with the shortest day of the year, around December 21, the winter solstice, and ends with the spring solstice on March 21. Happily, during this time the garden is far from dull. Many plants produce amazing blossoms or have brilliant stem or leaf colours, interesting seedheads linger from the previous season and leafless deciduous trees and shrubs reveal their lovely structural detail.

Select a plant for your climate

For West Coasters, rain is very much part of winter and there are some plants that absolutely look their best during or just after heavy downpours. All of the variegated Euonymus fortunei fall into this category and are quite hardy; coming from China they are happy in zone 5 and up. For years we have had a very stunning clump of the golden variegated form, E. fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n Gold’, in the Winter Garden at UBC and one’s eye is taken right to it during grey days. But more recently I have become a great fan of the prostrate form ‘Emerald Gaiety’, whose glossy, ovate, evergreen leaves are edged with white margins that take on a pinkish hue during the winter months. All in this group seem to tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. Ours thrive in well-drained, minimally fertilized soil in full sun. Another plant that looks absolutely smashing in winter is Nandina domestica ‘Gulf Stream’. The common name for this plant is heavenly bamboo and its native habitat is widely distributed from India to Japan. It isn’t a bamboo at all but has erect, cane-like stems and attractive, glossy, evergreen leaves. On this particular cultivar the leaves turn the most stunning light red to scarlet during winter and fairly glow in the rain. It also likes well-drained soil and appreciates an annual mulch of compost in early spring. It isn’t for everyone, however, as it’s only hardy in zone 7 and up. Sometimes the bare stems of plants can look wonderful with raindrops on them, and the arching stems of Rosa elegantula (formerly R. farreri) are a favourite for this reason. The stems are covered with dense prickles, which give them a fuzzy look and are perfect resting places for raindrops. The plant has a dense suckering habit but isn’t invasive; it just needs space to grow. Native to Northwest China, it’s hardy in zone 6 and up.

Evergreen plants brighten up winter months

Another group of must-have, lower-growing evergreen shrubs for winter is sweet box. My first choice is Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, which is native to China and hardy in zone 6 and up. It’s an evergreen, thicket-forming, sometimes suckering shrub with tiny but oh-so-shiny, dark-green, lance-shaped leaves. The white flowers are tucked into the leaf axils and your nose will locate them before you actually see them. On close inspection the male flowers have pink anthers. The perfume is heady and magical, adding much enjoyment to a dank, grey, winter day. Often the plant will have flowers and fruit at the same time, which adds to the interest as the fruit is shiny and jet black. Plant sweet box near an entrance to surprise your winter visitors. Add some compost to the soil at planting time and site it in a semi-shaded spot. This plant tends to like a slightly alkaline soil, so an annual light dressing with dolomite will keep it happy.

Winter flowers survive in cold temperatures

Winter flowers are always a joy, and those of you who know me will be aware that I am a great fan of Helleborus foetidus. This evergreen perennial is native to Western Europe and hardy to zone 6 and up. The dark-green, palmate leaves have 5 to 13 narrow leaflets. The flowers are apple green, bell-shaped and borne in clusters. A close look reveals the reddish margins. The flower buds start to form in early December and are always in full bloom by the end of that month. They last for weeks and seem to tolerate snow, frost and rain. Their other great claim to fame is that they thrive in dry, semi-shaded conditions. If you want to try something a little different, look for Helleborus foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’, which has red-tinted stems and leaves and slightly grey-green flowers. Another favourite hellebore is H. argutifolius, which is native to Southern Europe and slightly less hardy – to zone 6 and up. This is another must-have plant for dry semi-shade. The leathery, trifoliate leaves have softly spiny edges, so that even when not in bloom the plant provides pleasing texture. The flowers appear in late winter and are larger, about 5 cm (2 in.) in width, and a most delicate green. A locally introduced variegated cultivar called ‘Pacific Frost’ has mottled pink and cream leaves and the flowers are sometimes tinged pink. It originally occurred in the garden of Pam Frost, an amazing Vancouver gardener. A wonderful choice to lighten up a woodland garden is H. argutifolius ‘Silver Lace’, with stunning pewter foliage with toothed edges and luminous pale-green flowers. It seems that every winter plant I write about has some magic attached to it, and in my book Iris unguicularis takes the cake in this department. When I was a child growing up in the UK, my mother worked at a big private house with a beautiful garden. All along the south side of the house there was a band of soil no more than 15 cm (6 in.) wide bordered on the outer edge with a brick path. This narrow bed of soil was thickly planted with these wonderful, winter-flowering Algerian irises. The owners of the house would cut the pale-white, unopened buds and send them home with my mum. She’d place them in a vase and they would unfold in the warmth of the room to a most beautiful violet blue with gorgeous golden-yellow markings on the falls. I should point out this plant has the typical dense, sword-like iris foliage and it’s often quite long, hiding the flowers that are produced from late January through early spring. Slugs love to chew on the unopened buds, so surrounding the base of the plants with copper strips will help to keep them away. Native to Greece, Turkey and some of the Mediterranean islands, they are not hardy for all our readers – just to zone 7 and up. They love well-drained, hot, sunny spots against a wall or on the sunny side of a large rock. My friend Carolyn Jones tells me that at the Miller Garden in Seattle they cut the foliage back in the fall to show the flowers better.

Bulbs that bloom in late winter

When February rolls around, those of us on the coast often get our coldest weather, but there are two amazing bulbous plants that can lift our spirits as we tire of winter. The first is winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), which has a native range from southern France to Bulgaria. The golden, buttercup-yellow flowers surrounded by a collar of bright-green leaves atop a tiny, 8- to10-cm (3- to 4-in.) stem truly enliven the February landscape. These are wonderful bulbs for naturalizing in clumps or drifts under deciduous shrubs or trees. They prefer alkaline soil, so a light annual dressing (no more than a handful per square metre) of dolomite lime improves their performance. The other well-named bulb for February is the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and all its relatives. G. nivalis is native to Europe and quite hardy to zone 4 and up. The narrow, strap-like, blue-grey leaves are 15 cm (6 in.) in height, and individual flower stems each bear a sweetly scented, drooping, white flower with green-tipped petals. They look absolutely wonderful planted in drifts under deciduous trees in a lawn. There is an amazing annual show of them in Stanley Park between the Mary and Ted Grieg rhododendron garden and The Park Drive. And on the eastern bank of The Park Drive there are thousands of them at eye level. I get so excited when I see them each year I think they should be a news item! Clumps of snowdrops are best lifted and divided immediately after they have finished flowering. Just a word for our northern readers: years ago I visited a wonderful gardener in Whitehorse who grew snowdrops on the south side of her house, covering them in winter with brushwood and leaves. Of course they didn’t bloom in February, but they did mark the arrival of spring for her later on. So, as with all gardening, it’s good to remember “where there’s a will there’s a way.” Unlike many bulbs, snowdrops do not like to dry out completely in summer, so they do best where they get some summer watering. While I prefer the single snowdrops, for those of you who like double flowers Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ is the one for you as illustrated in our photograph (see top of article). This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plants for a winter wonderland. For more on the subject, try to find the late Rosemary Verey’s book The Garden in Winter, published by Little, Brown and Company (ISBN 0-8212-1669-4). It is out of print now, but it’s well worth seeking out in secondhand bookstores. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) – zone 5 • Euonymus fortunei (wintercreeper), E. fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’, E. fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ – zone 5 • Galanthus nivalis (snowdrop) – zone 4 • G. ikariae – zone 4 • Helleborus argutifolius, H. argutifolius ‘Pacific Frost’, H. argutifolius ‘Silver Lace’ – zone 6 • Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore), H. foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’ – zone 6 • Iris unguicularis (Algerian iris) – zone 7 • Nandina domestica ‘Gulf Stream’ (heavenly bamboo) – zone 7 • Rosa elegantula – zone 6 • Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (sweet box) – zone 6 David Tarrant of the UBC Botanical Garden is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV. Check out his GardenWise blog and his website.