Is your midwinter garden heart-warming, even when viewed through a fogged-up window?
Don’t get me wrong; most days are beautiful in the South. But I constantly prowl around for practical, seasonal garden ideas, especially in January and February when temperatures drop quickly from spring-like glory into chilly, wet and gloomy.
Testing winter extremes, last month I found myself torn between two worlds. Just a week after touring midwinter botanical and home gardens in tropical South Florida, I found myself crunching through ankle-deep snowdrifts photographing not-so-bare gardens in the north of England.
It’s easy to understand that most tropical plants will succumb to freezes. We have to keep them in pots to drag indoors during frosty weather. But we can still take advantage of bold, colorful foliage and winter flowers to give us a hint of warmer weather to come.
We also know that some popular plants from the Pacific Northwest, New England and Europe, such as lilac and heather, suffer during our hot, humid summer nights. But it’s more surprising when Canadian cold-hardy plants freeze to death down here in the mid-20s when temperatures drop suddenly after weeks of somewhat balmy weather.
So, I have uncovered those that tolerate it all — and look right in our own well-honed culture. I mean, anyone can recreate an Asian theme with a Japanese maple, azalea, clump of liriope, stone lantern and some raked gravel. Or an English garden with a stone wall, quaint gate, neatly edged small lawn and wraparound border of mixed odd-shaped or pruned shrubs. Or a tropical garden with gaily painted furniture, garish pottery, colorful evergreen plants, a cold-hardy windmill palm and a flamingo wall hanging.
But Mississippians have our own garden styles. And whether formal, suburban or cottage, we yearn for plants that both look right and perform without much fuss. Here is my studied list of all-time favorite “right now” Southern winter plants.
Start with a hard feature: stylish seat or bench, heavy birdbath, small sculpture, big rock, bottle tree — whatever suits your fancy and looks good all year but really stands out in the winter. And a dry walk or stepping stones to lead your eyes to it from the window or feet to it when outdoors.
Then add evergreen shrubs with winter interest, such as variegated Aucuba, big-leaf Fatsia, Aspidistra, dwarf palmetto, variegated Euonymus, golden variegated Yucca, red tip Photinia, rosemary, hollies, Little Gem Magnolia, wax Ligustrum, junipers, plum yew, red twig dogwood, emerald green Arborvitae.
Drape something with variegated ivy and bring the eye upward with an arbor or small architectural tree with interesting bark like native river birch or Chinese lacebark elm. Skirt these with a mass of Liriope, mondo grass, spikey Iris foliage, painted Arum or ferny silver-gray Powis Castle Artemisia.
That’s your garden’s “winter bones.” Next, go with early-winter flowering shrubs, including Camellia, flowering quince, fragrant winter honeysuckle, loquat, Japanese apricot (the fabulous Prunus mume), yellow-flowered Mahonia and winter jasmine shrub. These are all well-vetted Southern mainstays. But also consider more unusual or hard-to-find witch hazel, viburnums and the strange winter-flowering paper bush (Edgeworthia).
Heavy-berried winter shrubs include Nandina with its reddish winter foliage, Pyracantha and hollies such as Foster’s, Burford, Robin and the deciduous natives.
My showiest non-woody winter plants include paperwhite Narcissus, colorful creeping sedums, various kales, pansy, Viola, parsley and dusty miller. Oh, and I adore my winter Hellebores!
Regardless of garden style, that’s some kinda “best of” compilation for Mississippi midwinters. Mix and match from each group, put out some birdseed, and go back inside. Grab a cup of something, and enjoy the view from indoors.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.