Winter is not as awful as gardeners think. It's the image, not the reality, of winter that does people in.
Unlike Vienna or London, Washington is blessed with gorgeous winter skies and much sun. Snow is not too bad. Once in 15 years they actually plowed our street. Often days are quite warm enough to work outdoors.
This said, I feel if we can survive to mid-February (by which time the witch hazels and snowdrops and early crocuses will be in flower) we are set for the year.
The end of the year I ordered a few little plants. First, Solanum jasminoides, a white potato vine that I do not expect to be hardy in Washington -- or north of coastal South Carolina, for that matter. But in a sheltered spot, with a heavy mulch, who knows? Besides, it can always be grown in a 12-inch pot, somewhat disguised, and allowed to grow up a post for the summer, then brought indoors.
Last summer I admired it at Dumbarton Oaks (in pots) and it is grown widely in the warmest parts of England, though not hardy in most of Zone 8 there.
The plants mentioned today were ordered from a small nursery that specializes in perennials, including some rare ones. Montrose Nursery, PO Box 957, Hillsborough, NC 27278, issues a catalogue, no photographs or color, for $2.
A pretty and modest flower of late summer and early fall is Allium tuberosum, which is good as an edging plant; it would be pretty around a rose bed. It is densely tufted like chives, but has clusters of white flowers a foot or so tall, and a lot of them. It is beautifully used as an edging plant at the herb garden of the National Arboretum. Hardy above Boston, I'm told.
Blooming at the same time is the "society garlic," Tulbaghia violacea, which is less vigorous and less hardy (probably not safe much north of Washington) with foot-high stems of clustered blue flowers, vaguely like a small agapanthus. It is pretty at the arboretum's herb garden.
Not a common plant though tough as nails, probably up to the North Pole, is the white Boltonia asteroides, a waist-high perennial covered with tiny white asters in late summer. But I ordered the pink form, which is rare, even though I am not sure where to put it when it arrives.
I have never been to South Africa, but their flowering succulents capture all hearts when seen elsewhere, such as the Scilly Islands. There are many kinds that resemble one another, and I have never been able to get them to live, though I have not made serious efforts and have tried only some of the most tender kinds. Now I shall try Delosperma cooperi, which has two-inch-wide flowers of "bright purple," which is probably magenta. It is said to be hardy in Zone 6 -- Washington is Zone 7, so perhaps it will do here. Like all this class of plant, it will need full sun and well-drained, preferably sandy, soil.
The common, weedy and wonderful lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is one of those plants I do not understand at all. I once bought a plant, and for five years it seeded itself all over the place, then disappeared everywhere. Even if a particularly vicious winter killed it, you'd think its habit of seeding about would ensure plenty of new plants, and God knows I do not weed overly. Anyway, I shall now try the yellow-leaf form called 'All Gold.' Few plants have sweeter-smelling leaves, which you can put in cold drinks if you think of it.
There are various wild verbenas that are much like the annual garden kinds except the wild ones have much smaller flower clusters. V. bonariensis has small red-purple flowers and it grows to waist height. I trust that if planted in full sun it will weave itself into a nearby once-blooming rambler rose to give a little color there in the summer. I am not at all familiar with a plant called Verbena tenera, which creeps along at five inches. The one I ordered is 'Sissinghurst,' with coral-pink flowers. No idea where to plant it when it comes, but my rule is never to buy a woody plant without knowing precisely where it will go in the garden, but nonwoody things like verbenas are exempt from that rule.
Everybody who likes them at all probably has Johnny-jump-ups all over the place. I like them and am embarrassed to say I have never got them started. They all promptly die out, instead of seeding all over as they are supposed to. So I am trying a wild viola, V. corsica, which is said to be hardy to Boston and to produce pretty violet blue flowers almost all year long. Ha. We shall see. My guess (based on years of sorrow) is that this one either will die out within a year or else will become a vicious weed like the Confederate violet. As gardeners, however, we are expected to live on the edge.