How savvy gardeners send winter packing

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist March 19

We are winter-weary and yearning for the first great heralds of spring — the cherry blossoms. But they will be late this year, expected to peak the second week of April. They are late for the same reason we so desperately need them: The winter has been long, deep and like a houseguest who just won’t go.

There are simple but meaningful ways for the spring seeker to get through the next two or three weeks: by planting some pansies or primroses, buying a pot of miniature daffodils or getting a bunch of tulips for the vase.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

But a greater pre-spring show awaits the gardener who sits down and plans a March garden proper. That might mean planting things this spring or in the fall for a display in subsequent years, but such foresight underpins the most satisfying landscapes.

In a “normal” winter, if there is such a thing, savvy gardeners can begin to chase off the season in February. Even in a year such as this when everything is late, you can get a real jump on spring with plants that are just as fed up with winter as we are.

Bulbs

The first of the daffodils are only now appearing, but other specialty bulbs appear earlier.

The first is a low-growing, buttercup-like plant called the winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). Once established, a colony will seed itself and eventually spread to form a carpet of bright yellow chalices, happy to poke above an inch or two of snow.

Snowdrops are also dainty but higher — four to eight inches — with nodding white bell-like blooms that invite close review. Some of the more unusually marked varieties command high prices among snowdrop geeks, but the common types are pretty, cheap and effective. Use them along paths, at the base of trees or massed in the shade garden. Order the tiny bulbs for early fall delivery and plant them right away; they don’t store well. The two most popular types are the early flowering common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and the giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii). The latter is taller, with larger blooms and fatter leaves.

Crocuses are synonymous with early spring, but the earliest of them are named Crocus tomassinianus and nicknamed “Tommies.” They are cheap and should be planted generously (200 is not unreasonable for a 25-square-foot space). They spread by seed and after several years can form a hazy violet carpet, either in a lawn or in garden beds. If planted in a lawn, delay the first grass cut for a couple of weeks, and set the mower at three inches or higher to preserve the crocus leaves. Tommies are both more squirrel-resistant and more delicate than the later chrysantha varieties, which are good for an early April display. Barr’s Purple and Ruby Giant are darker and larger versions of the species.

Some miniature irises bloom in late winter, but they are low-growing, exquisitely marked and require close observation. They will persist if planted in a sunny and well-draining bed. Look for varieties of Iris histrioides and I. reticulata.

A few daffodil varieties will appear in the last month of winter; the best known is February Gold, which reliably blooms in early March. In Gloucester, Va., which is slightly warmer than the Washington area, bulb nurseryman Brent Heath reports several miniature daffodils now in flower — Mite , Snipe and Henriquesii .

Hellebores

Hellebores are perennials that deserve a place in every garden, and not just because they flower in late winter. They do well in partial shade and can take dry conditions once established. The blooms are bracts that persist in a mild year from February to April.

The most common type is called the Lenten rose, although varieties today are complex hybrids with the bloodlines of several species. They form clumps up to three feet across and can be planted as single specimens or as massed groundcovers.

Particularly choice varieties such as Pink Ice, Pink Frost and Red Racer look good in free-draining, frost-proof containers.

Stinking hellebores are taller and striking despite their name.

Trees and shrubs

A cherry relative named the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume) is covered in small, pink and mildly fragrant blossoms in March, blooming over a long period before the appearance of leaves. A variety named Peggy Clarke is valued for its deeper rose color and double flowers.

A cherry named Okame is another early bloomer. It is upright in habit, making it useful in small urban gardens, though the pink flowers tend to be a duller hue than the Tidal Basin Yoshinos.

Japanese camellias are handsome, medium to large evergreen shrubs that bloom from midwinter until April. In a milder winter, early-season camellias will produce a good display through March. Among the recommendations of Leslie Zupan, head of the Camellia Society of the Potomac Valley, are Professor Sargent, R.L. Wheeler, Daikagura, Herme, Greensboro Red and Pink Perfection. Camellias prefer some shade, a loamy acidic soil and a sheltered spot protected from winter wind. Keep them away from paths that receive deicing salts.

Witch hazels tend to be smarter than camellias in that their spidery flowers furl themselves when it gets really cold. Their dependability makes them lovely late-winter shrubs — deciduous, medium to large in size and spreading. The blooms appear in shades of orange, yellow and red, depending on variety, and some are powerfully fragrant. The classic yellow flowering variety is Arnold Promise, but other Asian hybrids make excellent garden plants, with good fall color. Look for Diane, Jelena, Harry, Orange Peel and Barmstedt Gold.

Another shrub, fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), won’t win any beauty contests — it is inherently twiggy and of little year-round ornament — but it has the capacity to fill the March garden with an intense lemony-sweet perfume. Wintersweet grows to 10 feet but is narrow and can be tucked into a tight corner near a patio or door where its scent will be enjoyed.

Far prettier, and just as fragrant, is the edgeworthia or paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). Its large, attractive tubular flower clusters hang from its bare brown branches. By mid-spring, the shrub has showy, blue-green foliage that hides the fading blossoms and grows to about five feet high.

The winter daphne (Daphne odora) is a smaller shrub, valued for its mounded habit and round evergreen leaves. It is fussy about its location, preferring rich but well-drained soil in the shade. It should not be pruned or moved, and even then it has a reputation for suddenly dying. In spite of all that, the daphne is a jewel of a plant, treasured for its penetrating sweet fragrance. A variety named Aureomarginata has attractive golden rims to the leaves.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is a much tougher and twiggier shrub, and often confused with the later-flowering forsythia. The jasmine, however, is mounded and blooms in milder periods of the winter but offers its best show in late March. It is useful for adapting to hot, dry sites and on poor soil. It can be cut back hard after blooming to keep it from spreading.

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