Gardening Guru

Embracing The Magic Of Winter Gardening

by Pam Eagles // January - February - March 2024

Greetings, fellow garden enthusiasts! Welcome to the onset of a brand new year … are you feeling the same excitement as I am? The anticipation is building with the arrival of catalogs brimming with enticing plant and gardening inspirations. For those not inclined toward gardening, how do you navigate the winter season? Well, let’s dive in!

While the outside might seem dreary, this time of year grants us the chance to engage in thoughtful planning. Hopefully winter will bring some much-needed rains to replenish our water table, alleviating the near-drought conditions we’ve been experiencing. Fingers crossed and prayers said for a turnaround. If you introduced new elements to your fall garden – be it trees, shrubs, perennials, or pansies – be diligent about keeping them adequately watered.

With all the trees’ leaves likely having fallen by now (except for a few Oak stragglers like those in my front yard), it’s crucial to keep them off the grass and other plantings. Remember, those leaves are valuable; compost them to create a splendid topdressing for your cherished plants throughout the year. I personally gather all the leaves, including last year’s pine straw (my preferred bedding mulch), mulch them with the lawn mower, and add them to the compost pile. For soil enrichment and natural nourishment, leave a layer of finely mulched leaves on your lawn to gradually work its way down.

Are you contemplating creating new planting areas or gardens when the weather permits? Keep in mind that it’s entirely acceptable in our North Carolina gardens to commence such projects whenever the weather allows and the ground isn’t frozen or excessively wet. I’ve decided to downsize gradually, subtly transforming my garden into a more intimate “secret” space without drawing too much attention. If a particular planting isn’t thriving or meets its end, I’ve stopped replacing it. Our gardening companions benefit from the realization that we might not have the time we once did to maintain everything. This can be termed “Pass Along Planting.” Most of us likely have prized plants shared by special gardeners in our lives, each with a name and a story. Keeping a garden journal helps, and a spiral notebook with pocket folders is ideal for cataloging plant identifiers alongside purchases. Speaking of which, I recently acquired an all-weather pen while scouting for holiday gifts. It writes in the rain, upside down – perfect for those moments when you need to jot down garden notes in the midst of upcoming spring showers or the heat of the summer. I’m eager to report on its usefulness in the future!

If you planted bulbs in November, they should be making an appearance now. Buttercups and hyacinths will soon bloom, signaling the time to explore early spring garden introductions. Throughout the winter, I’ve enjoyed a mixed planting at my back door. If you’ve gathered your favorites, I’d love to hear about them. If not, consider exploring options like lemon cypress surrounded by Heuchera and accented with seasonal floral pops. Currently, one of my outdoor planters boasts bursts of color thanks to my hardy pansies and snapdragons, while another showcases a conical variegated boxwood alongside Heuchera and pansies.

Speaking of outdoor planters, these provide a wonderful opportunity to add color and vibrancy to outdoor living spaces. In addition to the above-mentioned pansies, snapdragons, and Heuchera, consider these excellent choices for winter container gardening.

Winter Heather: Blooming from late fall to early spring, it offers small, bell-shaped flowers in shades of pink, white, or lavender.

Winter-Flowering Camellias: Known for their elegant blooms and evergreen foliage, their flowers in shades of white, pink, red, and even bi-colored varieties provide a welcome pop of color.

Hellebores: Also known as Lenten rose, hellebores produce charming, nodding flowers in a variety of colors, including white, pink, and deep purple.

Dwarf Conifers: Compact evergreen conifers, such as dwarf Alberta spruce or Blue Star juniper, add structure and greenery.

Ornamental Kale and Cabbage: Both are cold-tolerant and provide attractive foliage in shades of green, purple, and white, adding texture and visual interest to winter planters.

Variegated English Ivy: This evergreen vine provides a lovely cascading effect.

Japanese Pieris: With clusters of bell-shaped flowers and attractive evergreen foliage, this is a versatile plant for winter containers.

Red Twig Dogwood: Known for its vibrant red stems, this deciduous shrub is a winter stand-out. Plant in large containers for a bold and colorful display.

Red Winterberry Holly: Not only do they provide a pop of color, but they also attract local wildlife, enhancing the biodiversity of your outdoor space.

While grabbing another round of chili fixings, you might encounter Primrose in the floral department of your local grocery. Pick up a couple and place them in a pot for your back porch or kitchen island signs that winter won’t last forever will soon be everywhere.

When creating your winter planters, consider combining different plants for texture and contrast. Additionally, ensure the planters have good drainage to prevent water-logging during winter rains.

Let me circle back and reiterate the charm of Heuchera that I mentioned previously – if you’re not acquainted with or haven’t given these perennials a try, please do so in early 2024. With a range of leaf colors from lime green to nearly black, they’re not grown for their flowers – although they do send up shoots of tiny, colorful blooms. It’s the leaves that truly make these plants shine. Look them up during a cozy night by the fireplace, and come March, keep an eye out for them at your preferred garden center. The excitement is building!

Once March arrives and spring begins to stir, kick off the month by pruning deciduous trees and shrubs, encouraging healthy growth and shaping your landscape. Keep in mind, if there is an early summer or spring bloomer included in your workday, this could diminish blooms for the year.

This will be an ideal time to introduce early-blooming bulbs like daffodils, crocuses, and snowdrops already emerging in garden center pots and even in the grocery store. These resilient flowers push through the soil, announcing the arrival of spring with their cheerful blossoms. If you do grab them in bloom, pot them into your mixed pots and then add to your landscape after they begin to fade. Do not remove the greenery as that will feed the bulbs for next year’s show. Additionally, focus on soil health by amending garden beds with compost or well-rotted manure. Healthy soil sets the stage for robust plant growth and vibrant blooms. If you missed the fall planting season, take advantage of the cooler temperatures to transplant trees or shrubs, giving them a head start before the warmer days of spring. And consider creating a focal point in your garden around this time with a burst of color from flowering trees like magnolias or cherries. These blossoms not only signal the end of winter but also provide a captivating spectacle for you and your neighbors.

Make the most of this semi-downtime, fellow gardeners. I’ll catch you at the garden center before we know it. Happy planning and resting!

Pam Eagles

Pam Eagles lives in Rolesville where she gardens with two dogs and a cat. She is a founding member of the Community Gardeners of Rolesville Garden Club and serves as a Wake County Master Gardener.