Winter is hands down the best time to plan a garden. Not only are you liberated from pressures of racing against time to weed, sow, shop, plant, harvest and mulch in Seattle’s relatively short growing season, but you can see the outline of the garden, bare of summer leaves and annual plants.
It’s so tempting to go wild in spring at a nursery, when color-hungry eyes are blinded by azaleas, forsythias and primroses. Or just plain hungry eyes are buying nothing but annual herbs and vegetables. Oftentimes, gardens made that way run the risk of turning flat and gray in winter, swaths of deciduous shrubs and empty ground or pots that held annuals.
A garden planned with winter in mind, on the other hand, stands proud in February, buoyed by evergreen shrubs, colorful berries and twigs. We are so fortunate at the sheer amount of botanical diversity that thrives here, that it’s easy to have a garden that thrills you year-round, with scent, color and style.
First, build the bones of your garden with evergreen shrubs, trees and groundcovers that will be the right size for your space. Read the tags on the shrubs and trees — that little pine may grow to 30 feet in time. The evergreen presence can be a hedge, a low edging, a carpet or punctuation marks of blue or green conifers, variegated foliage — like Ilex, Osmanthus, Euonymous or Choisya. For smaller plants, consider heuchera (coral bells) or evergreen grasses and sedges like carex or ophiopogon (black mondo grass). Imagine they are all you see in winter — is there enough?
Need some inspiration? Check out designed public gardens like the University of Washington Arboretum, the Bellevue Botanic Garden, parks and zoos or even gardens in front of hotels and malls.
Then, add some highlights with bonus color from winter standouts like shrubby dogwoods, which shine in this season. Most look kind of meh most of the time, until fall when they drop their leaves to reveal glossy red, orange or yellow stems. The most exciting ones have variegated leaves. They generally get about 6 feet tall, so they make a nice focal point if you have space. A new red-twigged dwarf called “Little Rebel” tops out at about 3 feet. A whole article could and should be written about trees with beautiful bark — birch, paperbark maple, parottia and stewartia are just a few.
For berries, look to crabapple varieties with long-lasting fruit, tough ground-hugging cotoneaster, edible wintergreen-flavored gaultheria and, of course, hollies.
There are many striking tasseled plants that can anchor a bed or a corner all by themselves and will get the neighbors talking — silk tassel bush, also known as Garrya elliptica, and the twisty “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick,” Corylus avellana contorta (the twisted filbert or corkscrew hazel, named for a Scottish Vaudeville star, who often used a gnarled cane). They both put out swirly catkins that dangle in the breeze like tinsel on a Christmas tree. I saw a gorgeous combo of a Garrya backed by a witch hazel (hamamelis species), which offers smaller winter fringy flowers in yellows, reds and oranges — often with a spicy woodsy fragrance.
Punch up the color even further with early flowers — you can have bulbs blooming from February through April without taking up much ground, especially if you layer them from largest, say allium or tulips, in the bottom layer, up to snowdrops and crocus in the top layer a couple of inches from the surface. The pollinators will thank you, too, for adding flowers for them in the off-season.
The amazing hellebore family, which gets more amazing by the year thanks to prolific breeding programs, offers evergreen leaves, striking foliage and flowers that can start in November and take you through March if you pick varieties carefully. Christmas roses (helleborus niger and hybrids) bloom November through January, while Lenten roses (helleborus orientalis and hybrids) bloom January through March.
What look like flower petals are actually sepals, but nobody minds, especially the bees who love to visit them on warm winter days. The “flowers” are long lasting and stay on the plant as they darken slightly to mauve or green, but stay attractive. They make wonderful cut flowers floating in a dish for several days.
To add the extra dimension of luscious fragrance and evergreen foliage, look to sweetbox, sarcoccoca hookeriana var. humilis (shorter, to about 18 inches) or ruscifolia (a great hedge pick at 3 to 5 feet high). Glossy almond-shaped leaves mimic boxwood, without the unpleasant odor, and instead offer a wonderful vanilla scent in early winter that lingers in the air.
Daphne species are another wonderful option that may have you following your nose to ask your neighbor what they are growing this time of year. Evergreen, usually averaging about 4 feet tall, they are a handsome player for a partially shady spot. The pink or white flowers have a swoon-worthy scent.
The catch is that poor drainage, erratic frosts or transplanting may cause them to exit the world without warning, but I love them so much I am growing three different types. There are even varieties like “Summer Ice” and “Eternal Fragrance” that repeat bloom into the summer, extending your swoon season for months.
Lastly, there are the plants that look beautiful as they go gently into that good night — with lovely seed heads or tawny colors that take on extra allure when there are fewer flowers to distract us. Designer Piet Oudouf calls the enjoyment of this demise “the fifth season.”
Hydrangeas, ornamental grasses, echinacea (coneflower) and more can have their old flowers left on to feed the birds and give us more things to enjoy until the last gorgeous minute.