Garden Notes: Winter bloomers

Keep your garden bright and thriving, even in the cold season.


In a now well-established ritual, I check the witch hazels. I have a small collection of five winter bloomers. Three have been of blooming age for about a decade. This year ‘Jelena’ was in bloom by New Year’s. It has never been earlier!

Crazy weather in the western part of the U.S. is likely to affect food delivery and prices, since such a large percentage of our fresh food comes from there. Use salt, baking soda, or vinegar in cool water to soak your fruits and vegetables for around 20 minutes to remove pesticides and bacteria. Avoid eating fruits and vegetables straight from the packet, even if they are organic.

Several things

With warmer-than-average temperatures being predicted for the Atlantic coast, the Island gardener has several things to watch for.

In the context of increasingly mild winters: Winter dormancy, “a long winter’s rest,” was once a months-long interval, but is now much briefer. Pre-emergent dormant oil sprays will need to be applied earlier than expected. Clean, oil, and sharpen pruning tools, because it looks as though pruning — usually performed during a long dormant period — had best be done promptly.

Dormant pruning includes plants that are pruned before sap rises, and those for which pruning cuts may serve to attract insect pests: maples, birches, dogwoods, styrax, grapevines, fruit trees, blueberry bushes, and more. Check structure of all trees and shrubs for pruning correction and crossing, rubbing branches.

Semi-evergreen Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) continues in growth when winters, like this one, are mild. Walk around the garden to spot the dark green leaves of this bird-sown vine. Because the shiny black honeysuckle berries are food for them, birds are likely to excrete seeds under evergreens such as hollies, spruce, and pine; within hedges; and next to shrubbery, all of which provide avian roosting and nesting sites, as well as the support to climb upward that the vining honeysuckle requires.

Japanese honeysuckle plants form extensive, branching root systems, making them pests that are challenging to be rid of if they are misbehaving, including strangling the host plant. On the other hand, many of us have a sentimental fondness for the edible flowers and nectar, the evocative sweet scent, and the way the plants grow — that is, when under the eye of watchful gardeners.

However, even though running rampant, the vines form thickets that can be real cover for wildlife on an increasingly suburbanized Island. See information here: .

Mowing twice a year is suggested in the link provided, and in my experience, this works well to control spread. If there is only a small amount of honeysuckle, cutting and pulling by hand is often sufficient.

While out poking about in the garden, it will be noticed that clumps of bulb shoots are showing on the soil surface here and there. Come what may, winter’s vicissitudes over the next two months will not hurt them, as they are adapted to freeze/thaw episodes. Many beloved spring bulbs originate in places such as the mountains of the Caucasus, where bleak conditions and bitter weather are facts of botanical life. Alternatively, a layer of mulch to “button in” what cold there is will not hurt, either.

Borrowing sunshine

A garden well-planted with evergreens, lushly shady and cool in summer, could seem dark and somewhat forbidding in the season of short days. It may seem simplistic, but a golden or chartreuse foliage plant can actually fool the eye that there is a little bit of sunlight, right there, in that spot.

It took me quite a long time to appreciate what I thought of as “novelty foliage,” revealing my essential staidness; and I still recoil at some of the striking foliage combos that plant breeders have produced.

Nevertheless, I noted the “sunny yellow-kissed chartreuse mounds” ascribed to ‘Anna’s Magic Ball’ thuja in the Bluestone Perennials catalog, visualizing what effect a couple could create in a dark corner of my garden. These focal points have been classic techniques of gardeners in northern latitudes, with long winters of low light and short days, borrowing sunshine via the careful siting of brightly colored foliage plants.

Atypically variegated, golden, or chartreuse foliage plants are not suitable as landscape plantings: Green is the color of nature, and they carry an aspect of contrivance and artifice. Often arising as sports from more typical specimens, they are carefully propagated and coddled because the variegation is also an unstable trait, and reverts to green easily. Beyond the garden they look out of place, and really are only effective in proximity to the built environment.

‘Weedy Wisdom’

A special and welcome gift book is Rebecca Gilbert’s “Weedy Wisdom for the Curious Forager: Common Wild Plants to Nourish Your Body & Soul.” Gilbert, of Native Earth Teaching Farm on the North Road, is well-known to many here on the Island, and will, I hope, become better-known through her book.

Through her lens of “Weedy Wisdom” (observation, practice, and respect), Gilbert explores environmentally and culturally informed land use, the antithesis of antiseptic, mechanical precepts.

Being able to speak with nature directly has many benefits, particularly for healers and creative people. However, it is not all pretty flowers and happy songbirds out there. Those who converse with the world as it is must be prepared to acknowledge and process a lot of grief. Plants, being unable to walk away, are far less prone to denial and avoidance than we are.

We as children, along with our parents, frequently visited Gilbert’s benevolent grandmother, Cecil, and seemingly gruff grandfather, Jim, at that very North Road property. Through its influence on her, Gilbert has come to know and understand a sense of place, and the role its roots provide. She addresses ways to acquire these insights; her direct, declarative style has integrity, but is written with delicacy too. It is a trustworthy manifesto, both accessible and delightful.

Upcoming Island events

  • Pathways, Chilmark: “Leaf Art Collage Workshop” with Emily Davis, Saturday, Jan. 21
  • Slough Cove Farm: “Fibershed Meeting” with Amy DuFault, Jan. 28