I always warn my clients about the February Freeze. For some reason, it seems we get a warm spell in early winter in our greater Portland, OR region. We typically have lovely long warm, then mild falls. Then the rains begin, it comes close to freezing, and we all just freak out!
But then suddenly, in late January, it warms up. Winter has just begun, yet it’s warm. We all think, YAY! SPRING! (After just 2 weeks—or so—of winter.) Adding to the confusion, many plants begin to push out fresh growth. Everyone heads out to prune back their roses. And pull bittercress (a prolific weed that begins to show itself in January here).
STOP! Pull the weeds, but don’t prune the roses. We WILL have more winter. I’d say 9 out of 10 years, we have a warm up in late January, then a wicked cold snap the first or second week in February—with or without snow and ice. Then the rains will resume and we’ll have our usual fairly mild rest of winter. And that is exactly what has occurred this winter (so far).
How did YOU like that ice and snow event we had a few weeks ago?
Will Everything Make It Through the Winter?
Winter is just a bit more than halfway through. We had that VERY cold spell in January. Then the February Freeze. And a lot of plants have taken it in the shorts.
I was out coaching the other day and my client had several hebes. They looked a little raggedy, but like they will survive. Does anyone remember maybe 8 or 10 years ago we had 2 back-to-back ice event winters and pretty much all purple-leafed hebes kicked the bucket? We in the gardening community learned that the large-leaf and purple-leafed hebes aren’t really fully hardy in our area.
Though we are technically zone 8, every now and then Mother Nature tosses us a challenge. When I design, I choose the bulk of plants for zone 7, or lower (colder). Insurance.
Meanwhile back in my garden, my Heucheras are barely hanging in there, even though they’ve been mulched heavily. Hope it was enough. The top photo shows how ragged they are looking — that one is Silver Scrolls. An unknown ruffled cultivar, the top photo in this section, is looking pretty sad, too. I realize that many Heucheras are almost tender here, but I love them so much, I can’t imagine gardening without them. I probably depend too much on them to be evergreen, and in winters like we’re having, they can totally defoliate or even die.
The lesson here is: plant lots of different types of plants unless you have found a single thing you love that can that can do it all in all conditions. I can’t think of even one plant that fits that tough demand.
Another plant that seems all but dead in my garden is my golden marjoram (at right). See it’s former glory in a post from last spring. It is now barely recognizable. But I am willing to almost guarantee it will be just fine once it starts to grow in spring. In fact, since I whacked back all the dead material, that should effectively rejuvenate the plant and make it even more lush.
What Else Can Go Wrong in Winter?
In the garden photo at right, you can see how what were lovely golden marjoram mounds are now brown scabs (see reference photo in the post from last spring).
Adding to the unappealing marjoram die-back areas in this photo are 2 badly lace bug-damaged dwarf Rhododendron impeditum shrubs. They are brown because of the insect damage. Learn more about these pests. A close up shot of the damage is below.
The point here is not specifically the insect damage, but to emphasize how plant selection can make or break a garden’s ability to beautiful in all 4 seasons.
Damage from insects or disease can make plants ugly any time of the year. And no matter what is causing the damage to my rhodies, I have determined that these plants are not the ‘right plant’ for this place. For that reason, coupled with the fact that I don’t enjoy looking at a brown garden during winter, I will be removing these shrubs and replacing them, probably with lavender.
Why lavender? Well, I like it! If that is not reason enough, I think it’s a good choice because it is:
- evergreen AND makes flowers AND has a fragrance I love
- a different shade of green than anything currently in the garden; some cultivars have almost silver/gray foliage
- the blue flowers will look great with the golden marjoram foliage and also with the ‘Diablo’ red crocosmia and white ‘Shasta’ daisies I know are also in that bed
- extremely drought tolerant; and quite pest and disease free
- doesn’t grow too large for this narrow bed — neither wide nor tall
And since the lavenders will grow to be about the same size as the rhodies I’ll be removing, if we have another hard winter, the loss of the golden marjoram won’t be so glaring. In fact, there is some sedum ‘Angelina’ in the back of these beds. You can see it near the rock in the tall garden photo above and also in the lower left corner of the lace bug damage photo above. It is VERY reliably evergreen in our planting zone. So it in front of the lavender will ensure that I’ll have a colorful, evergreen presentation to the world during winter—well, if I prune the lavender at the right time. Stay tuned for how and when to prune lavender later this summer.
Learn from mistakes and situations beyond your control is part of gardening. Don’t be afraid to ‘edit’ your garden when situations change. Believe me, just when you think you’ve covered every possible variable that could change, something ELSE will change. Remember: change is the only constant. I can’t remember who said that, but someone very astute. :-)
Here are some tips for gardening for 4-season interest:
- choose the main structure plants for least one zone colder than where you actually garden
- use the thirds rule of plant selection — 1/3 evergreen (conifer or broad-leaf) woody plants, 1/3 deciduous woody plants, 1/3 perennials and/or annuals (including bulbs). This ensures there is variety that is almost always better than a mono-culture.
- select plants for pest and disease resistance
- some deciduous plants have lovely structure during winter; others — like most mop-head hydrangea — are pretty ugly
- know when to prune (and how) to ensure best evergreen foliage or twig coloration to carry through the winter
- try to incorporate some hardscape like rocks/boulders, a dry stream, a gravel edging, a colorful vase or other statuary