The winter garden is a very special aspect of the gardening year. Everything looks different, everything is fresh. Winter is one of my favorite times of year in the garden. Maybe because I’m a winter baby—born in the midst of January. But winter is not a dead time of year in the garden at all! There is much you can do to bring life, color, interest and beauty to your garden in winter. There are many plants that bloom in the winter in the milder parts of the country. Even if you live in the frozen North, you can still bring the garden indoors with blooming houseplants.
Part of the fun of gardening in the South (I garden in Zone 7b) is that winters are short, the gardening season is long, and there can be things in bloom in the garden almost year around. Of course, the downside is that sometimes plants that begin blooming during a mild spell in late winter—deciduous magnolias, for instance—can be zapped and turned to ugly brown mush by a late freeze. You can bring beauty and interest to your winter landscape with shape and form, evergreens, texture and color of bark, winter bloomers, cones, berries and persistent seedpods. And, of course, don’t forget to attract the beauty and liveliness of songbirds into your garden with bird feeders and with plants that provide food and shelter.
winter garden exposes the bones—the design, shape and structure—of the
garden as at no other time of year, so it is important to plan it with
all seasons in mind. Winter is a great time to reassess your garden,
note successes and failures, and make plans. For instance, as you look
upon a bare winter landscape, ask yourself how it could be improved.
Would your winter garden be improved by the addition of some evergreens
for winter color and diversity in the landscape? Consider how you can
improve the winter landscape or the view by careful placement of
or by incorporating,
shrubs or trees that have interesting bark.
cones or seedpods,
or winter blooms.
Want some flowers for winter color? Nothing beats pansies and violas (their smaller cousins). Pansies can be planted in the fall (Zone 7 and above)—they may hunker down when temperatures drop below freezing—but they will revive with the first hint of warmth and flower until heat makes them languish (around the end of May in my garden), and then they can be replaced with summer annuals. Violas seem to be a bit hardier than pansies and will last longer in the garden. Ornamental cabbages and kales have been developed with fancy leaf shapes and colors. They are great in combination with pansies or violas in containers, to border a walk, or massed in a bed. The best perennial by far for winter bloom is Helleborus orientalis, or Lenten rose. I absolutely love this plant! Not only are the large leathery palmate leaves handsome all year around, but they bloom in the dead of winter in lovely shades of white, pink, rose and wine in solids, or with speckled, edged or mottled patterns. The flowers persist a long time and then fade and form seed capsules. One of the benefits of hellebores is that they freely self-seed and soon carpet the area around them with babies that can be transplanted to form new colonies. A favorite variety is called ‘Ivory Prince,’ with silver veined leaves and upward facing ivory blooms flushed with rose that fade to green—an outstanding performer.
There are some trees and shrubs that provide color in the winter garden. For winter flowering, the glory of southern gardens is the camellia— Camellia sasanqua from mid fall to early winter, and Camellia japonica from late winter to early spring. C. sasanqua is a little more cold-hardy and has smaller leaf and flower than C. japonica. Rosemary is a woody herb that will bloom in winter is milder areas. One of my favorite flowering trees is the 'Okame' cherry (Prunus 'Okame')—heralding the coming of spring in mid-winter. Witchhazels and wintersweet are great choices for winter to early spring color when everything else is bare, in yellow to red varieties. Click here for color for your winter garden with annuals, bulbs, perennials, shrubs and trees.
Plant of the Month
Camellia x vernalis 'Egao Corkscrew'
Updated new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map 2023.