Winter Light, Winter Life

Tualatin NWR

Do you long for spring? Fantasize about those warm summer evenings when the sun stays up past nine o’clock? Deny that winter has yet to officially start? Realize you’re eating dinner and curling under the bed covers earlier than just a month ago?

I’ve got it bad. Yesterday I found myself inspecting shrub and tree branches for next year’s growth and scanning the ground for the first spring bulbs. But here’s some good news: The days are beginning to lengthen again. Sure, we’re talking just minutes gained each day following the solstice, but it’s a start and I’ll gladly take every extra moment of daylight!

Winter is often thought of as a time of slumber—not just for us to catch a few extra winks, but also for the garden. While the cold, short days do tend to reduce some of the obvious vivacity of nature (especially in far northern, frozen latitudes), even in midwinter and beneath snow scientists have found that the soil thrives with living, breathing, developing microbes, some of which can freeze without harm. In the PNW our gardens are anything but sleepy. Amidst the amazing hubbub of microbial activity that helps provide a growth surge in springtime, plants’ roots are slowly developing in preparation for the demands of next year.

But since most people lack a keen interest in soil science, it’s the above ground doings that grab our attention. The “architectural” plants and other elements that remain standing all winter create the “bones” of the landscape, although texture, color, and movement enhance the view as well. I especially like to add such interest to areas that are frequently viewed, such as near an entryway or outside a cozy window seat. Wildlife appeal is also vital.

Native coniferous trees like cedar, fir, and pine are popular because they’re always green and provide framework and privacy, but what may be most captivating is the texture of their foliage—especially lovely holding onto snow, however fleeting that may be in our neck o’ the woods. Broadleaf evergreen shrubs, including the glossy-leaved Gaultheria shallon (salal)evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), and salal (Gautheria shall on), along with winter-blooming silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica and G. fremontii), provide interest in all seasons. In sunny ground level situations, Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) carpets the soil and cascades over rock walls with its attractive evergreen leaves and red fruits that persist into fall and beyond. In shade, the heart-shaped and often evergreen leaves of ground-hugging wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) usually inspire smiles.

Blechnum spicant (deer fern)Intricately divided fronds of the lovely deer fern (Blechnum spicant) hang around all winter, while  licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a charming summer-deciduous type is often found growing lushly amongst mosses and dead wood or rocks. Speaking of deciduous, some shrubs just can’t wait until spring to bloom—like wind-pollinated California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica) that flowers in January. Others—Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) in particular—bloom at the cusp of spring.

Plants with colorful twigs or bark can steal attention, too, especially when planted en masse. Cornus sericea and other “red twig” dogwoods have an almost fiery bark that stands out, particularly against pale or very dark backgrounds, and the gorgeous burnt-orange bark of madrone trees (Arbutus menzeisii) peels to reveal smooth, olive-colored trunks and branches, and not just in winter. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) gleams with its white, berrylike drupes, and wild roses, including Rosa pisocarpa and R. nutkana, produce strikingly red rosehips.Arbutus menziesii (madrone)

Elements of movement can be an enjoyable part of the winter landscape, too. Popular plants that provide a rustling motion as winter winds blow include grasses, such as Festuca idahoensis and Deschampsia cespitosa, which look best planted in swathes, and western sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) with their tall, sturdy fronds. While they are great accents any time of the year, grasses and ferns might be most impressive during the humdrum days of winter when they also provide structure and intriguing texture.

Needless to say, the best way to liven up the landscape is to encourage the presence of birds and other wildlife in the garden, and the best way to do that is with native plants that naturally occur in your region. To supply food and shelter from rain and cold, think evergreen trees such as western red cedar, western or mountain hemlock, Douglas-fir, or wax-myrtle. Allow seed heads to remain on perennials to provide food for birds (unless self-sowing poses a problem). Be sure to check plants’ needs before incorporating them into your yard or plan.

_MG_2133 sRGBWhoever said that winter landscapes are drab and lifeless didn’t consider the possibilities. With a little ingenuity and planning, your garden can be a winter wonderland—in spite of short days.

Happy winter solstice!

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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