Back to previous page


Post Most

How gardens grow during a mild winter

By ,

Perhaps the notion of a “normal” winter or any other season is nothing more than an artifice to protect us from the taunts of the weather gods.

Normal, we discover, is not a constant. It changes with where you live and how long you have lived. My formative years in England brought February walks alongside frost-crusted wheat fields. I searched for puddles that were frozen, so I could smash them with my boot as if they were panes of glass. Rarely were they frozen solid. Usually, the “glass” was eggshell thin, unhappily.

Winters were dark, cold and foggy, but they weren’t frigid. Washington was frigid. Washington was a place where the air turned dry and bitingly cold, and the rhododendron leaves wilted so badly that you had to look away.

And there were moments in a Washington winter when it was cold but beautiful, like looking across a snow-encrusted lawn to see a stand of redtwig dogwood, a shrub whose stems would glow scarlet right after the leaves fell in November. You could stand this beauty until the feeling left your fingers and your ears began to hurt, and then you sought shelter.

Those winters seem a thing of the past. Today, Groundhog Day, we are supposed to find out if a woodchuck (not my favorite rodent) will see its shadow and determine whether winter will last for another six weeks. This year, the question is not so much when winter will end, but when it will start.

I have friends who grow a daffodil that doesn’t need much coaxing, and it will flower in mid-February in a conventional winter. I don’t grow Rijnveld’s Early Sensation because I don’t find yellow trumpet daffodils to be sensational. Moreover, I really don’t want to see a daffodil outside a greenhouse until early March. This “winter” Rijnveld showed his face around Christmas. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Many winter-flowering plants, of which there are a fair number, are primed to bloom sporadically during periods of mildness. This on-and-off flowering can last weeks, as with the autumn-flowering cherry, which folks mistake for the Tidal Basin Yoshino, and the winter jasmine, which folks mistake for forsythia. By the end of January, where I live, the autumn-flowering cherry was in full sail and the mounds of jasmine half done.

There are two basic kinds of snowdrop, the giant snowdrop and the smaller, common species. Both have been in flower for weeks, along with the ground-hugging winter aconite, which resembles a stout buttercup ruffed like Queen Elizabeth (the first). It usually appears in late winter with the snowdrops and before the earliest crocus.

Witch hazels and fragrant wintersweets take their chances, but this year the tentative unfurling of petals is anything but halting. Many varieties are already winding down. At Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, known for its witch hazel collection, a mature and striking variety named Jelena is still splendid, though the coppery flowers have been dulled not with freezing but with age.

A stroll the other day through the botanical park revealed other oddities: a winter heath (Kramer’s Red) smothered in magenta pink blossoms, a pachysandra wanting hard to flower, which it usually achieves in late February, and, most astonishing, a flowering quince in mid-blossom. It’s a white variety (Jet Trail) known for its earliness, but still . . .

I counted two honeybees out supping nectar and a load of gnats whose dance was backlit by the sinking sun. Can mosquitoes be far behind?

The lovely hellebore called lenten rose has already begun to bloom, hidden under the canopy of last year’s leaves. Its cousin, the stinking hellebore, is not as demure — its new growth for the season is a conspicuous lime green confection of stem, leaf and flower. Again, it is doing its thing weeks before expected. Hard to establish, this perennial loves free-draining soil and, where happy, will seed to form great drifts. This has happened at various places at Green Spring, but particularly beneath a great old walnut tree. The bell-like blooms are rimmed with a red line, and they are musky in fragrance, giving the plant its common name.

Typically, all these cold-season bloomers appear as amusing distractions in a winter landscape. What is a winter landscape? It’s a place where nature’s heartbeat slows to a torpor, where the grass is brown, the shrubs naked and slowly budding, and the leaves that do linger have flagged and lost their radiance. This winter, that hibernation has been spotty at best. We’re not in spring, but a sort of limbo where the greenery has a sap-infused glow about it.

Most of my fellow gardeners rejoice at the great displays of snowdrops, for example, but there is an underlying anxiety that this isn’t right. For us, or our plants. The end of winter may have a sting in its tail made all the more potent by the warmth. Watch out, you magnolia lovers and apple growers. Until that happens, if it happens, I think I’ll sow some peas. Spring may be fleeting.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter.

Tip of the week

Rosebushes should be pruned in late winter before buds start to break. Use pruners to remove canes that are inward-growing and diseased. The object is to leave five to seven main canes cut to about 18 inches above the ground. Make a slanted cut just above an outward-facing bud. This is a job for thick gloves and long sleeves.

© The Washington Post Company