Seeing in the Winter Garden

by Judy Funderburk, Extension Certified Master Gardener

Brown and Grey + Mockingbird Play

Mockingbird on (Ilex verticillata (Winterberry Holly), protecting its winter 'pantry.'

Mockingbird on Ilex verticillata (Winterberry Holly), protecting its winter ‘pantry.’
Photo © 2018 Judy Funderburk

As the cold of winter approaches, the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden winds down. Shorter days and colder temperatures signal some of the garden perennials that it is time drop leaves and turn brown, while for others it is their time to shine.

Unlike the riotous orange, red, gold, and magenta colors of fall, winter’s palette tends to be more subtle. Walk through the Library Garden with “winter” eyes and notice how the shades of brown and gray provide a backdrop for evergreens, some sedums, and native berry plants such as red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), and ‘Red Sprite’ winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) to shine. Red Sprite’s berries will remain for at least a month and probably well into January, when freezing and thawing softens the berries enough that robins, catbirds, and mockingbirds come to feast.

Sedum sieboldii 'Winter Daphne' shows off her fall/winter colors. Photo © Mary Free

Sedum sieboldii ‘Winter Daphne’ shows off her fall/winter colors.
Photo © Mary Free

For the past three years, the Library Garden has had a resident mockingbird who claimed the Red Sprite at the corner of the cemetery as his winter pantry, chasing away all other birds. Last year he ate particularly sparingly and the bright red berries lasted into March. The stonecrop Sedum sieboldii ‘October Daphne’ is also a fall/winter show-off. The repurposed bird bath beside the Gazebo provides the perfect setting for this sedum’s bright pink fall blooms and, as the temperatures drop, its bold rosy red leaves.

Each year we try to add more native winter interest shrubs. Walk in on the 3rd Street path and look left toward the Library as you come to the fence to see the beautiful orangey-gold berries adorning our ‘Winter Gold’ winterberry hollies planted on either side. Then look right and take in the brightly hued branches of the red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’). Turn into the Asian garden and notice the witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’) with its fragrant coppery-orange flowers in late winter, early spring.

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The tall stalks and beautiful seed heads of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), are left to feed the birds and show off their spiky good looks. Native perennials with stalks larger than a pencil may be cut, but are held upright in a bright blue “cage” in the back of the pollinator bed. The cage allows insects who have burrowed into the stems to lay eggs and overwinter, while also preventing the cut stems from rotting on wet or snowy ground.

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Lifting Up + Bedding Down

Canna tubers Photo © 2018 Elaine Mills

Canna tubers
Photo © 2018 Elaine Mills

When the temperatures regularly go below 50 degrees, elephant ear bulbs and caladium tubers are dug. At the first frost, canna bulbs/tubers are carefully lifted out of the ground. For all, soil is mostly removed and the bulbs/tubers/rhizomes are stored indoors or on a porch to overwinter – caladiums with a bit of warmth, cannas and elephant ears in coolish places. Some of summer’s colorful annuals (coleus, lantana, begonia, purple shield) have been lifted or had cuttings taken, potted, and taken in to overwinter in sunny windows. Melampodium regularly reseeds itself. Feather celosia and Gomphrena globosa (globe amaranth) sometimes reseed, sometimes not, so seed is collected to be spread next spring.

Our hardy fiber banana plants, Musa basjoo, are tropical perennials whose large corms and offshoot rhizomes stay in the ground all winter. At first frost, their huge leaves droop and are cut off at the central stalk. For the few short weeks between first frost and hard frost, those stout stalks are colorfully painted, proclaiming their new role as “Site Specific Sculpture” in the tropical garden. Neighborhood children and gardeners take delight in painting the stalks exotic colors, stripes, and spots. Because we left this joyful art standing too long last year, a sudden deep freeze turned all the banana stalks to frozen mush and most of our banana corms (the momma plants) did not survive. This year’s Banana Stalk Sculpture is smaller, but still designed to bring a smile on a grey day!

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By December the Library Garden has been put to bed, given a blanket of mulch to protect roots from too much freezing and thawing, and to keep perennial weeds from sprouting. It is the time of dormancy when roots and some bulbs are alive but mostly resting. By December it is also time for your garden coordinators to allow themselves a bit of “dormancy” after weekly work parties on alternate Sundays and Mondays from March through November.

A December/January wish: May the garden in winter be a teacher. May you experience this season as a time of creative dormancy, when you, like the plants and your coordinators, take time for renewal and replenishment, perhaps snuggled under the warmth and cover of a blanket!

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