Wet winters are tough on hardcore gardeners, who fret when kept out of the beds and borders. Sadly, soggy soil is especially prone to damage. When we walk and work in wet beds, we create soil compaction that prevents plant roots from getting all the oxygen they need. Root rots are more common in compacted soils, and here in the maritime Northwest, far more plants are lost to winter rots than to actual cold damage.
Happily, winter is the best time to evaluate your garden’s functionality and looks. We’ve had some whopper rains in recent years and these torrential downpours seem to be becoming the New Normal. Even during ordinary rainy spells, it’s easy to tell if drainage needs improvement or walkways need an upgrade. If you can’t stroll the garden comfortably in winter, it’s certainly time to widen or rebuild the paths.
This is also a splendid time to prune back any overhanging shrubs that make paths unusable. Where large shrubs border both sides of a path and the branches almost meet in the middle, it’s best to move the shrubs back a few feet (or more). If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. As is so often the case, the sustainable thing to do is this: Cause It To Be Done By Others.
I was recently discussing some garden renovations with a skillful friend who has been helping with indoor work. I was exclaiming over how quickly two young men removed eight misshapen trees and cleaned up perfectly, all in about two hours. He looked at me kindly and said, “They’re younger than we are.” Oh, Good point. Hire strapping young people to do the digging and shifting and you’ll find the works goes much faster!
Escaping The Crowd
What’s more, winter is an excellent time to thin overcrowded beds and borders. When beds are new and empty, it’s extremely easy to plant shrubs and perennials too closely together. As they mature, unless they have the space they need, plants will become misshapen and are more susceptible to powdery mildew. To create space, remove the ugliest and weakest plants and rearrange the remainder so they have breathing room.
Yes, I know I said stay out of the garden. Did you think I was serious? Actually, it IS important not to do too much damage, but there are ways to get into the garden without harm. For one thing, you can neatly avoid compacting soil by using kneeler pads and/or boards rather than tramping directly on fragile damp soil. Mine are made of plywood, with handgrips cut in. I use them in pairs, moving one while standing on the other. Clever, yes?
Editing Is Endless
Why now? Perhaps the best reason to thin out beds in winter is that, without colorful blooms to create sentimental doubts, it’s easy to be ruthless about clearing away plants that are not pulling their weight. Even when all is well, perennial-rich borders need digging over and resetting every five or six years (if not oftener). If this gets tiresome, consider replacing less-than-loved perennials with handsome, compact border shrubs that can stay put indefinitely.
What sorts of shrubs are these? Spireas are a great favorite of mine, combining colorful foliage in chartreuse, bronze, sage or olive with long lasting flowers in pink and rose. I use low-growing Spirea Goldflame in mass plantings, blending its tawny foliage with coppery grasses and bronze heleniums. Its cousin, Lime Mound, makes a terrific blender between deep and softer colors, while Candle Light offers softer golden foliage and gentle pink flowers. Where taller plants are wanted for the back of the border, mix in some beautyberry (Callicarpa x Profusion), which partners marvelous fall color with purple winter fruits.
Evergreens In Winter
To improve a perennial-heavy garden’s winter looks, mix in some evergreens as well. Rhododendron Moonstone is a lovely choice, with soft pink buds that open into creamy yellow trumpets on 3 foot high mounds. Rh. Capistrano is similarly shapely, maturing to 2-3 feet high and 3-4 feet wide, and covered with soft lemon yellow flowers in spring. If you prefer clean white flowers, try Rh. Dora Amateis (2-3 feet high by 3-5 feet wide) or choose bright red Elvira (2-4 x 2-4 feet).
In partial shade, consider Leucothoe fontanesiana Scarletta (3 x 3 feet), a charming little evergreen with four good seasons. Native American L. axillaris gets a bit larger (3 x 6 feet) but has lovely color in spring, autumn and winter. They mix well with bronze-pink, evergreen autumn fern (Dryopteris erythorsora) and evergreen Iris foetidissima, with frumpy flowers followed by fabulous seedpods.
The Roses of Winter
Christmas Roses (Helleborus niger) and other evergreen hellebores will add attractive foliage as well as lovely cool-season flowers in cream, soft yellow, chartreuse, pink, rose or dusky purple. Combine them with spring flowering Lenten Roses (H. orientalis) and strapping, summer blooming Corsicans (H. argutifolius) to spread the joy through the year.
Evergreen epimediums offer lacier leaves and arching stems dangling with little flowers in late winter. Evergreen European wood spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides Ruby Glow and its colorful cousins look splendid in sun or dry, rooty shade. Trade poor perennial performers for any or all of these year round lovelies and next year, your borders will be almost as handsome in winter as in summer.