Season 2 • Episode 1 - January 18, 2023

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A lot of people say that the winter garden is boring. The cold rains, the lack of daylight and associated lack of warmth all signal a cold and boring garden. To prove everyone wrong we stopped by the Al’s Garden and Home in Sherwood (503-726-1162) to talk with Aaron and see some plants that will provide color, texture, structure and even fragrance for the winter garden. He also talked about planting in the winter. As long as the ground is not frozen solid, you can still plant! He recommends that you follow the same rules for planting in the winter as you do the rest of the year. Dig a nice sized hole, amend the soil, water well and even use a transplant fertilizer. By following those simple rules and by planting now you can assure yourself of a beautiful garden next winter.

We started with a lavender plant. These are well known for their wonderful bloom stalks and intoxicating fragrance during the early summer, but they are also great in the winter garden too. The evergreen foliage can brighten up your garden and it is also fragrant if you brush it. Next were ferns. These are a favorite native in the Northwest garden, with many of us having sword ferns or deer ferns in our garden. But there are so many varieties that can add a lot of different textures in between your other plants. These were smaller varieties and quite dainty. We featured the Autumn fern which gets a nice orange color in the fall and then will turn green again in the spring. You can keep these looking nice by cutting off the old weathered fronds in the late winter and letting the newer green fronds grow up to replace them. Grasses are also popular in the fall and winter garden. For most varieties, they are simply tall green clumps during most of the summer, but then in the fall a lot of them change color and can also add a soft texture to the hard edges of your garden. We looked at the Orange New Zealand Sedge with its wonderful fall color still showing. Some gardeners will cut their grasses back in the late fall, but they can add a great backdrop to your garden especially on those windy days. Wait until early spring to cut them back and they will be fine. If you have an evergreen grass like ‘Evergold’ you can just pull out the dead or brown leaves and let the rest stay there. The new growth will fill in the bare spots when the weather warms up. Aaron also showed us how you can pair up a darker grass like Black Mondo grass with the brighter Evergold to really show the contrast. These smaller grasses will also work well in containers for year-round contrast.

The next great plants on the table were the hellebores. These are old garden favorites with a twist. There are newer varieties coming out every year and that means new bright colors for your winter garden. The flowers traditionally would face down when the plant blooms, but the newer varieties are bred with the flowers facing more upright so you can enjoy them in the garden. In addition to the flowers, a lot of varieties have interesting foliage as well. Now is a good time to cut back the foliage to expose those new blooms. The older foliage can start to look pretty bad in the late winter and cutting off the leaves will not damage the plant since it will send up new leaves later this spring. Just be careful to avoid those new flowers when you do the cutting.

Ryan pointed out that the flower blooms of the perennial hellebores looks great but there are other plants that bring interest to your garden through their berries. Wintergreen is a low growing ground cover, but it has some colorful berries and leaves that can brighten up those lower dark areas in your garden. They can have red or pink berries and even variegated foliage that will turn a bronze color in the fall and winter. The berries are cool for another reason too. They have a nice mint flavor and the leaves can be used to make a tea. Another nice plant is the underused epimedium. This is a family of plants that have different characteristics depending on the one you choose, but they all are known for their wonderful dainty blooms. The best way to observe these blooms is to cut all the foliage back to the ground in the late fall to late winter. The new, orchid-like blooms rise above the ground with new foliage following. Some people keep the foliage until the last minute so they can see the distinctive patterns on the leaves. We then moved to euphorbia. This is a huge family of plants that includes the tender poinsettia to the more hardy varieties. The ones for your outdoor garden can have great variegated foliage and wonderful, but unusual bloom stalks. We saw ‘Ascot Rainbow’, with reddish stems and multicolored variegated foliage and ‘Glacier blue’ with a bright cream colored foliage. These stay much shorter than the larger Euphorbia wulfenii. The next plants we looked at were the heucheras. These have become quite popular in recent years. It is because of the foliage. The different leaf colors with patterns of different colored veins in the leaves are incredible. There are also flower stalks and they are not huge, but are still interesting. The common name of ‘coral bells’ gives a hint of the flowers as they form long strings of bell-shaped flowers. A taller grass-like plant was next. The phormium, or New Zealand Flax, are a hardy plant in your winter garden. Some have bright leaves, some have dark leaves, some are upright and some are weeping, some can get really tall (over six feet tall) and some can stay shorter (a foot or two). The New Zealand Flax doesn’t really need pruning, as you can just cut out the ugly looking stalks, but it does need well-drained soil to thrive. We saw the green and gold ‘Yellow Wave’ and the deep blood red ‘Amazing Red’.

The next plant can be outdoors and/or indoors and can get really big if you don’t keep an eye on it. It’s the Fatsia. We had a Fatsia ‘Spider’s Web’ to look at with its variegated foliage. This one likes morning sun which will help bring out its variegation. Ryan found a couple more plants that were actually blooming right now, we started with the English Daisy. When spring starts to get close you will find these starting to pop up. These groundcover blooms will continue through the summer, with fewer blooms, but they still will look good. Other early bloomers are the pansies and violas. These are from the same family and will take a beating and still continue to bloom. We’ve seen them completely frozen in the morning and then looking great in the afternoon when the temps get warm again. They are tough! They are ‘winter blooming’, but they will bloom all season long and will reseed if conditions are right. In addition to the bright colors, they also have a slight sweet fragrance. In the later winter and early spring you will also see the hardy cyclamen starting to bloom. They usually have the bloom appear first, followed by the foliage. It is a nice surprise in the early spring garden. There are a couple types of cyclamen. The hardy, which tends to have a smaller bloom, and the tender florists cyclamen which is an indoor plant with larger blooms. Bergenia was next. It has a nice bronze colored foliage right now in the cold days of winter, followed by bright flower spikes in the spring, and a return to green foliage in the summer again. Some varieties can get huge and are called Elephant Ears due to the big leaves. Sedums are also great ground cover types of winter plants. The ‘Dragon’s Blood’ sedum was on the table and it showed how you can use a small plant like this to fill in the blank parts of your winter garden. Be sure to pick a good variety for your winter garden as some will disappear and die back in the cold. Once they are established they can be very drought tolerant as well!

We took a break and returned to talk about a few more plants.

This time we were looking at broad leaved evergreens, needled evergreens and dormant trees known for their branch and trunk structures. The first one was the contorted filbert. A variety that a lot of people look for is the ‘Harry Lauder Walking Stick’ or Corkscrew Hazel. These are very slow growing and have twisty, bendy clusters of branches. If you shine a light on them in the winter garden, they can be quite striking. They even have signature catkins, or flowers, that show up in the spring, though you won’t get any nuts from the tree later in the season. Judy then pointed out the evergreen magnolias, Cape Harris and Teddybear. These are great small trees in the garden. They have the great white, fragrant flower in the late spring and summer, but right now they have the glossy leaves and an interesting underside to the leaf that makes them a great addition to the winter garden.

Camellias are a favorite in the Northwest garden. If you plant different species you can have color from October or November to May or June. Sasanqua camellias are blooming now and Japonica, with their bigger and showier blooms are great for the spring garden. There are also hybrids that can bridge the seasons to bring blooms to your garden. One that we love is the Yuletide camellia. This one starts blooming around Christmas time with red petals and bright yellow centers, perfect for the holiday season. Next we found a bright gold pine at the back of the table, the Chief Joseph. This was found in the Wallowa mountains of Oregon and it is a slow growing pine that is green in the summer and then when the colder temperatures roll in it turns to a bright golden color. Another pine that we had on the table was a Scots Pine, that is more of a ground cover and only gets about two feet tall when it matures. It really spreads out and covers a large area if you are looking for something that is low maintenance and strikingly beautiful. If you are looking for something colorful and short, then the Mugo Pine ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’ might be the one for you. This one stays short and forms a bun shape, and turns a wonderful gold color in the winter! Mahonias should be familiar to Oregonians. Some varieties are known as Oregon Grapes and are the state flower of Oregon. They are not grapes, but get their name from the purple berries that form on the plant and are a favorite of native birds and wildlife. The one we saw was a variety called ‘Charity’. It gets large stalks of golden flowers in the winter which are a favorite of hummingbirds and bees. Its ‘holly-like’ leaves create an interesting foliage in your garden during the winter months. Aaron then pointed out a blueberry next to the mahonia. This variety, ‘Sunshine Blue’, keeps its leaves in the winter, unlike a lot of the other blueberry varieties. It also is a great berry for the home gardener as it is covered with wonderful fruit during the mid-summer months.

We were approaching the end of the table and that included a variety of Euonymus. This one was evergreen with the new growth a bright golden color. It will get even more gold with more sun in the winter. We then went to an evergreen hemlock that had variegated foliage. This was a newer variety with the newer growth having a white tip to it. It will turn back to a green in the summer, but as soon as the temperatures drop you can expect the new foliage to go back to white again. At the back of the table was a bunch of twigs. Actually it was a dogwood called ‘Midwinter Fire’ and it may be non-descript in the summer, but in the winter it has fiery orange and red branches that really stand out in your garden. We’ve seen them in gardens and they truly stop traffic in the winter! Next to the pretty sticks was a plant that will surprise you. Sarcococca, or sweet box, will stay low to the ground and in the winter it has tiny blooms that are very hard to find, but you can sure smell them! This plant will have people wandering your garden looking for the source of the wonderful fragrance. It is an evergreen and during the summer it can easily get lost among your other garden plants. But make no mistake, you’ll find it in the winter! Just follow your nose. Another bright plant in the winter garden is the variegated boxwood. It is like its popular cousin, the evergreen boxwood, but this one has the showy leaves that you will love in your garden.

As we were finishing up we saw a couple of Cryptomerias. Variety ‘Mushroom’ turns a dark bronze color with soft foliage in the winter, but returns to a bright green in the summer. Variety ‘Elegans’ is similar, with a striking fall and winter color, turning to green in the summer. The foliage is very feathery and soft to the touch. A great winter blooming shrub is the witch hazel. These have little clusters of blooms that look like shredded coconut on the length of the bare branches. They have bloom colors in the reds, yellows and oranges, with green leaves in the summer that turn into bright fall colors at the end of the season. Edgeworthia, or Chinese Paperbush was next and this one is special. It is called paperbush because some cultures used it to make paper, but it is known for something even more special. The pendulous blooms on this shrub are just showing up now and they are very fragrant! They look like balls of bright yellow or orange flowers and are a showcase in the mid-winter garden. Ryan found one more plant at the back of the table and that was a pencil thin Yew. This one stays nice and narrow so it can fit in a tight spot in your garden, a foot wide and eight feet tall at maturity. It too, will turn a bright gold in the winter and returns to a nice green in the summer.

We finished by talking about now being the best time to shop your local garden center to fill your winter garden. You can find the plants now that will really shine next winter after they have had a summer to acclimate to your garden. We recommend that you stop by any of the four Al’s Garden and Home locations in the Portland metro area, or check with your own local, independent garden center.

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