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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Dependable perennials bloom thru all of winter's storms

by Carolyn Singer
November 27, 2010

Under the broken branches of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) lying across the border near my front walkway, a foxglove is blooming this week. Gardening friends have been picking beautiful bouquets of roses, aware that winter has arrived and these treasures will not last exposed to the elements.

Iris unguicularisHowever, winter now brings a new season of flowers to the garden. You just have to look a little closer. And be satisfied with less floral abundance. I have positioned almost all my winter bloomers near walkways to the house. Others, especially those with strong foliage and form, are viewed from windows. I don't want to miss any of the nuances of my winter garden.

When my winter-blooming iris (Iris unguicularis, photo above left), began opening blue-violet flowers just two weeks ago, I paused from carrying groceries to appreciate their delicate beauty. The blossoms are fragrant, though this is lost on a cold winter day. Arching evergreen foliage protects the flowers which are formed just a few inches above the base of the clump, but still each one rarely lasts more than a day. New flowers open continually through January.

My original iris clump came from an old garden in Grass Valley many years ago. This is not an easy plant to find in the nursery trade, but well worth the search. It is a deer-resistant perennial that never seems to need any attention, and even survives without summer irrigation.

Lenten roseAlso deer-resistant, hellebores will soon begin their show, continuing from December well into late spring. Always first to open my garden is the Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis(photos right & bottom). Slender stalks develop quickly above robust, almost tropical-looking foliage. The flowers are intricate, and are offered by local nurseries in a range of color from deep rose to pale green.

If the foliage of the Lenten rose looks ragged toward the end of winter, cut it off to the base. New foliage will soon form. This evergreen perennial self-sows easily, providing many more plants for your garden.

However, there is a trick to bringing these seedling hellebores into the world successfully. Early winter is the time to spread compost as a mulch around your hellebore, before it blooms. As the flowers fade, seed pods begin to develop. The fading flowers are still attractive, so there should be no compulsion to deadhead. When the seeds are mature, the pods open and scatter their precious offering on the compost you spread. There they lie, sometimes for months, germinating when conditions are perfect. Young plants may be lifted and moved to a new location.

violetsViolets open next, usually beginning with the small purple Viola odorata (photo, right) in December. This is another perennial that self-sows in the garden, increasing the numbers each year. When my grandchildren were very young they delighted in searching the warmest microclimates on my property for the first violets of winter. They knew these blossoms were edible!

There's something very special about taking an otherwise neglected corner of the landscape and introducing winter-blooming perennials that become a dependable part of the winter season, even when severe storms damage trees and shrubs in the garden. This bit of color delights the senses each year no matter what the weather.
lenten rose

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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