IT BEARS REPEATING: The only way to have a year-round garden is to plan and plant for it. Too often, our beds and borders reflect planting whims limited to the active growing season — after all, that’s when we’re shopping at nurseries. Distracted by flowering shrubs and perennials, it’s easy to overlook choice fall and winter plants.
Right about now, what would you rather see? Dormant hydrangeas and bare mulch where the hostas lie dormant, or the crystalline white blossoms and glossy evergreen foliage of Camellia sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’ and the earliest blooms of various Helleborus nigra? The persistent fruit of persimmons and crabapples like Malus transitoria ‘Golden Raindrops’ or M. ‘Adirondack’ and the purple berries on beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’) are seasonal showstoppers deserving of their garden footprint.
Jim Fox, expert plantsman and longtime buyer for Wells Medina Nursery, knows a thing or two about shopping for plants that perform during the quieter months of the year. It’s true: Fall inventory levels aren’t what they are during the busy season, and you might have to put your name on a wait list for that beautyberry, but discoveries await those who go looking for them.
Back out in the garden, the pink blossoms of Viburnum × bodnantense ‘Dawn’ fill the damp air with a sweet tangy scent from now through April. And as fall slides into winter, fragrant blossoms emerge on winter daphne, Oriental paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and witch hazel. Fox says daphnes and edgeworthia have been in low supply for a couple of years, so it pays to inquire early. “Daphne bholua is hard to find but worth the look,” he adds. “Who cares if it’s only a 6-inch rooted cutting?”
When placing plants in the quiet-season garden, Fox recommends planting dark-flowered witch hazels where the winter sun will shine through their blossoms, and placing light-colored flowers against an evergreen backdrop. Sited near the entryway, fragrant plants such as daphne and winter box (Sarcococca sp.) will scent your comings and goings, while spaces beneath deciduous shrubs and around dormant perennials are perfect for skirting with winter-blooming bulbs, like cyclamen and snowdrops. “The spaces exposed once shrubs and trees drop their leaves, beneath or behind them, are fine places for winter beauties,” he adds.
Back to nurseries. Fox tells me that even if the numbers are small, unexpected winter treasures do sometimes find their way onto shelves in the offseason. “You never know when you might find limited numbers of plants propagated by the nursery or offered to them by small growers,” he says. “Come only with the expectation of a nice walkabout in the cool sun or fresh air.”
He also suggests following up your excursion with warm cocoa and pastry. At the very least, you always can count on a colorful array of pansies. For seasonal endurance, Fox recommends choosing smaller blooms over larger floppy flowers. Lighter colors look best in the garden, even on gray winter days, and will flower from now until spring. Fox notes the plants might look a bit forlorn in December and January if we’ve had a wet and very cold winter, but advises gardeners to hold on because, “In mid- to late February, they start pushing [new growth] and go on for a couple more months.”