I’m a little conflicted when it comes to using the term “winter.” I often use the gardening term “cool season” to describe this time of the year.
The word winter carries certain meanings that simply do not apply to our weather in December, January and February.
When you close your eyes and think of winter, do you imagine a cold, snowy landscape with people bundled up in coats? Be honest. But we just experienced almost a week of temperatures in the 80s, and highs are often in the 70s or 60s for Christmas.
And that’s the problem. Our gardens and landscapes do not experience extreme cold all winter long. Instead, we see long periods of chilly to mild weather punctuated with short periods of subfreezing temperatures. This pretty much sums up our winter weather, and it allows our landscapes to stay remarkably lively.
Indeed, the cool season is an active gardening time, not a time of rest and dormancy. We continue to plant hardy trees, shrubs, vines and ground covers, as well as cool-season flowers and vegetables all through December, January and February.
Admittedly, our gardens do look different this time of the year. Most of our shade trees have dropped their leaves and are bare. Lawns have gone dormant and lost their lush green color. Tropical plants miss the warmth of summer and often sustain cold damage during freezes.
Overall, our landscapes do not look as lush now compared to summer. But they are not bare and lifeless.
For one thing, we use lots of broadleaf evergreen shrubs and ground covers, which keep our landscapes from looking so bare. But it’s not just a matter of using evergreen plants.
Some of the broadleaved evergreens aren’t content simply to retain their foliage through the cool season — they deck themselves out. Consider sasanquas (Camellia sasanqua) and camellias (Camellia japonica).
Sasanquas bloom from October to January. Camellias produce large, flamboyant flowers that brighten our landscapes from December through March.
Cultivars of Encore azaleas and Robin Hill azaleas bloom in the fall and into the winter and are providing color now. Roses are still blooming.
Other winter bloomers may not be so flashy, but sweet olives (Osmanthus fragrans), leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) delight us with their enchanting fragrances on mild days during the cool season.
There are also plants that do most of their growing here during the cool season. Our native Louisiana irises grow from October through April.
Other winter-growing herbaceous perennials include calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica), red spider lily (Lycoris radiata), Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum) and acanthus (Acanthus mollis). These plants provide rich green foliage and wonderful textures to beds and, in the case of Louisiana irises and calla lilies, to water gardens in the winter landscape.
All the spring-flowering bulbs grow through the winter here, providing patches of spiky, upright green foliage.
I’m sometimes asked about protecting the foliage of spring bulbs during low temperatures. You can relax. The foliage of bulbs, like narcissus, tulip, daffodil, snowflake and Dutch iris, to name a few, is quite hardy. Open flowers are more prone to freeze damage. If temperatures threaten to reach the mid-20s, harvest the open flowers to enjoy in vases indoors.
Speaking of plants in active growth during winter, we continue to plant and grow a wide variety of cool-season vegetables and herbs.
Some of the most delicious and nutritious cool-season vegetables can only be grown in Louisiana during cool to cold winter weather, including broccoli, cabbage, carrots, turnips, mustard greens, lettuce and green onions.
And we can harvest many herbs as well, such as parsley, dill, cilantro, thyme, oregano, chives and many others.
Keep your vegetable and herb gardens productive by planting hardy herbs and vegetables through the winter.
Of course, one of the things that make our winter landscapes come alive is use of cool-season bedding plants, such as pansy, viola, dianthus, alyssum, petunia, snapdragons, columbine, foxglove and many others. These indispensable plants provide abundant and vibrant color for the winter flower garden.
Although the best display of cool-season bedding plants is seen in the spring (late February, March and April), enough flowers are produced during our mild winters to dress up the landscape beautifully.
Even cool-season bedding plants that may wait until spring to bloom, like columbine, foxglove and hollyhock, provide attractive foliage to the garden before they bloom. Like cool-season vegetables and herbs, you can continue to plant cool-season bedding plants through February or early March.
So, our landscapes stay remarkably active during the “dormant” winter. The evergreen plants we use so abundantly retain their foliage, and many plants grow and bloom or produce fresh food for the table all through the winter.
In spring, as our gardens begin to grow in earnest, and deciduous trees and shrubs send out new growth, we simply see more plants joining a party that has already started.
Spring, it could be argued, is more like a climax to the growth and color that occur in our gardens all through the cool season. This is not so surprising when you consider that our cool season is not (thankfully) the frigid, dormant, barren winter it is up north.
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