The “garden in winter” brings visions of bare branches and bark to my mind. I also think of red holly berries, pansies and crocuses. A visit last month to Juniper Level Botanic Garden in Raleigh showed that winter offers that and more. The garden in winter and early spring can also have beautiful color and delicious fragrance.
Tony Avent, owner of the garden and Plant Delights Nursery, showed me around at his winter open house in late February and a follow-up visit last week. There was so much to see I could barely keep up, and Avent’s enthusiasm is contagious. As we talked, I was thinking ahead to what new plant (plants!) I could put in my garden.
Perennials are the main attraction here. These are among my favorites:
Camellia japonica ‘Black Magic’: This camellia has large, shiny dark burgundy-like flowers. This is not a camellia I’ve seen before.
Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Snow Cream’ (Snow Cream Paper Plant): I fell in love with this plant. The creamy white and yellow flowers of Edgeworthia smell like sweet honeysuckle. The flowers, which appear to bow their heads, hang from knobby-textured limbs. The Plant Delights Web site says: “All summer, the 8-foot tall by 8-foot wide umbrella-shaped clump, supported by a smooth brown trunk, is adorned with plumeria-like leaves. The foliage drops in mid-December to reveal both the wonderful bark and the large silvery flower buds. The flower buds open steadily from mid-January to early April.”
Iris: Irises remind me of my grandmother, who grew them in a rock garden. This one starts blooming in the fall and goes through March or April, pausing if it gets very cold.
Ipheion uniflorum ‘Alberto Castillo’ (Starflower): These pretty, dainty white flowers grow from bulbs and bloom February to March.
Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’: How could you not like a flower called ‘Brazen Hussy’? Plant Delights Web site says: “This spring ephemeral emerges in February with rounded, glossy black foliage in a 6-inch wide rosette that hugs the ground. From late February through late March, … the clumps are topped with brilliant yellow, 1-inch flowers held on 3-inch stalks just above the foliage.”
Other winter-blooming plants included trillium, hellebores, false crocus and winter-blooming peonies.
Many of us want an instant garden, and we buy plants without really thinking about their needs and whether they’ll fit the space. But Avent’s mission is teaching; he encourages gardeners to learn about the plants and where to put them. That’s the reason for the open houses, which Plant Delights puts on for two weekends each season.
He talked about the soil, when to plant, and the bane of gardeners everywhere: weeds.
The soil: “It’s all about the soil,” Avent says. Prepare the entire bed with 50 percent native soil and 50 percent compost. Nutrients should be added to the entire bed, not just the hole where you put the plant. The roots don’t confine themselves to that hole; they spread.
When to plant: Many of us think about planting flowers in spring when the air warms up. But according to Avent, “Planting seasons are an old myth that hangs around like Freddy Krueger.”
You can plant perennials any time of year – in cold of winter and during summer heat. At Plant Delights, plants are grown in cool greenhouses, where the temperature is kept about 35 degrees. If you buy a plant here in winter, you can plant it out in your garden immediately because the plant is already accustomed to lower temperatures. The exceptions are small agaves, palm trees and banana trees. They need warm temperatures and warm soil to become well established before winter. These should not be planted after Aug. 1 because they won’t have time to establish themselves enough to survive our winters.
In April, the covers are removed from the greenhouses, so the plants are effectively growing outside. Avent says you can also plant in the hot months of July and August, and at Plant Delights, a lot of planting and transplanting is done at this time of year because the plants re-establish quickly.
Weeding: I noticed the lack of weeds in the gardens, so Avent told me about the weed seed bank.
A square foot of bare soil has about 7,000 weed seeds. That’s a lot of weeds. Depleting the seed bank before planting is best, he said. One way is to turn the soil to bring those seeds to the top, and wait for the weeds to start growing. Then you can kill them by applying a post-emergent herbicide or by pulling the weeds before they produce seeds. It will take about a year to kill summer and winter weeds using this method.
Another method is solarization. To do this, spread black or clear plastic over the area and seal it. This kills the seeds in the soil.
To prevent new seeds from blowing in, Avent suggests planting a hedge on the southeast side of your garden to keep prevailing winds from blowing seeds in. He uses Nelly Stevens holly; a tall wood fence is another option.