The garden in February


I see no reason to attempt to convince anyone that growing flowers in their garden through the winter months is worthwhile. For someone who ventures outdoors only to get to the warmth of their automobile there is no earthly reason to make any effort to plant flowers that are never seen. I’m not crazy enough to wander about the garden on cold, gray days when the wind is howling (today!), but there are enough days suitable for outdoor exploration that I find planting for winter flowers richly rewarding.Hellebore in mid February

Until recent years hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus, above and below) would occasionally show a bit of color in my garden early in February, but never sooner, and seldom were any blooms fully opened before late in the month. Several years ago they were buried (along with the rest of garden) under a few feet of snow that persisted into early March when the first flowers peeked through as the  snow melted. This became most disappointing when the hellebores faded after several weeks in the warm, early spring sun.Hellebore in mid February

For the past few years the hellebores have begun flowering in January, and last year there were scattered blooms late in December. Still, the flowers continued into the middle of March with only few of the earliest bloomers fading sooner. Hellebores are perfectly suited to gardeners who are undisturbed by a bit of cold, or by the need to get down in the mud to appreciate the nodding flowers. Even on the largest clumps the flowers can not be seen from more than a few paces away, so hellebores are not the plant to impress the neighbors as they drive past.Hellebore in mid February

A few weeks ago I cut back the foliage so that the flowers would be more prominent. At the time the leaves were unblemished and green, but often they will brown along the edges in late winter, so the plant is greatly improved when the foliage is removed. It grows back quickly once flowering has ended, and by mid spring hellebores are again full and lush.Hellebore in mid February

This afternoon, I noticed many new seedlings growing beside the parent plants, and a few more that strayed a bit further. Several of the large hellebore clumps are in fact several plants growing together as seedlings have sprouted and intermingled with the parents, and this is only evident when slight differences in flowers are observed. Most often I’ll transplant the seedlings once they’ve reached a size to have adequate roots. Several times I’ve lost undersized transplants to a dry spring, so now I err on the side of caution and wait for a larger plant to move. There are so many that I can’t attest to the age at which they begin to bloom, but it seems that I don’t see flowers until at least the second year after they have mature sized foliage. After a few years the gardener doesn’t care, and probably doesn’t know which ones were store bought from the ones that are seedlings, since neither is superior.Winter jasmine at the start of January

I suppose that I could be perfectly content if hellebores were the only winter blooms in the garden, but I don’t object that there are more. Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, above) is a slightly more refined, earlier flowering, and certainly smaller growing shrub than the ubiquitous forsythia that flowers on every street corner in the neighborhood in mid March (though the flowers and arching habit are similar). There is a utilitarian appeal to winter jasmine in preventing erosion on slopes as its stems root wherever they touch soil, but it is a sufficiently likable shrub if only for the clear yellow blooms that are dependably scattered from early January into March.Snow covered Mahonia bealei blooms

The flower buds of the paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) have been on hold since late January, but Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) has also reset its schedule in recent winters to flower earlier into February. It’s peak is still a few weeks off, but there is enough color in the middle of February to satisfy the flower starved gardener.Arnold Promise witch hazel in mid February

The hybrid witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) make the most prominent display of flowers in February, if only because they are the largest of the winter flowering shrubs. The yellow ‘Arnold Promise’ (above) and red ‘Diane’ (below) begin to show some color late in January, but despite blizzards or unseasonably warm temperatures they are certain to reach their peak in mid February. On still days the fragrance wafts across the back garden, undeniably signaling that spring is near.Diane witch hazel in mid February

4 Comments Add yours

  1. James says:

    Dave….This is a new adventure for me. After some instructive comments from one of your landscape designers, I bought four bareroot helebores and four 1 qt plants to give them a try in my shaded, wooded areas. Also bought a few wood poppy bare roots, as well as some wood poppy seeds. As usual, I procrastinated planting the 1 qt plants a few days, and found that the little pots were now hard blocks of ice. Was shocked to see on the planting tag that they survive to temperatures as low as -40 degrees F! So I guess I’ll just wait a few more days till those root balls thaw out, and stake out some beds in the woods where I can see the blooms in the winter and spring from our sun room. Looking forward to it all. Stay tuned.

  2. A good post! I am a hellebore fan too and have the greenish flowered one. It has been in the garden for years now and never fails to flower and spread.

  3. tiff says:

    want some Lenten Rose and Witch hazel, I know the hellebore will grow here in the NC Piedmont, but will the witch hazel? More research is needed.

    1. Dave says:

      Virginiana witch hazel is native to much of the mid Atlantic and upper southeast, so I would guess that the hybrids will be fine in NC.

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