Winter Stalwarts

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Stephanie Hudak

Stephanie Hudak

By Stephanie Hudak, Columnist

Don’t we love the weather in Georgia and setting record weather marks: a record amount of rain in 2013, a record low temperature in the single digits; a record high over 100 in the summer of 2012, a drought that left Alabama mad at us because we didn’t share Lake Lanier water, and the list goes on.

Well, right now I’m not too happy setting any weather records, and neither are the winter containers. Those low temperatures turned perky pansies and violas into something that looks like wet tissue paper. Grooming all 52 containers and getting them back to something presentable is going to take some time. The plants themselves are going to be fine – eventually (as Eeyore would say).

We won’t have color for a while until the base plant can recover from the shock. But, hey, let’s hear it for kale and parsley. Except for a little burn on the kale leaves, they came through fine.

The autumn ferns – didn’t miss a beat. But more on who were the winners and losers in another column.

This time I wanted to mention some plants for your garden that can take the brutal cold and still give you some color and texture.

We’ve talked before about winter trees and shrubs that will do that, but this time perennials are the topic. Perennials don’t have to just be “fair weather friends”.

Their winter look might be different from the warm weather days, but that might even prove to be more interesting. Especially when everything around them is beige or brown.

Plants that come from areas with dry winters and have sun all day tend to be evergreen. Those that come from areas that are wet, cold or covered with snow – well, they have no reason to be evergreen.

So that is something to consider when buying your plants. What works best for your garden?

Think about where you are putting the plants: dry with lots of sun – wet and shady.

Now what plants work? Some of my favorite ground covers are the sempervivums (hen and chicks) and the sedums.

Check out: Sempervivum ‘Red Rubin’ and ‘Krebs 2’ with a gray green color that is enhanced with red, or Sedum ‘Angelina’ that is lime green in spring and deep bronze in winter. Look into Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’, a spurge.

It has wonderful thick leaves with a blue-gray color that is only enhanced with a layer of frost – okay, let’s not hope for more frost and just enjoy the color.

The gray leaves of lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantine) hold up really well through the winter, as does rose campion (Lychnis coronaria), another gray leafed toughy.

BTW – hummers love the red flowers of rose campion.

For a different texture you can’t beat Acorus ‘Ogon’. The grass like yellow-green leaves will really give a bright spot to any area. One of the plants that also did well in the containers is the old standby Carex ‘Ice Dance’, which looks like lirope but is much classier.

I could go on and on about the heucheras (coral bells). There are so many varieties it would take an entire column just about them. The cold weather did make the older leaves “lay down” but they still look good. There are some small grasses that don’t turn into that “beige” world.

One of the best is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium – I defy you to say that to your nursery man – but it will get you to the correct plant when in doubt ).

It turns a deep rose red in winter. And, of course, another of my favorites is Carex testacea or Orange sedge, which turns a deep orange/bronze. Pair it up with the ‘Angelina’ sedum and you’ve “color”.

Let’s not forget the old time favorites though. Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), they gives us that great blast of springtime color but holds it evergreen leaves in winter; any of the Dianthus (Cheddar pinks); the herb thyme comes in a variety of colors and fragrances.

The list could go on. But the idea is to think about color and texture from perennials that we only consider in the spring and summer garden. For those of you who need a neat and tidy garden please consider the “needs” of those winter plants.

They may be tough but leaving a layer of fallen leaves or the old foliage is what protects them from the harsh temperatures. So, tidy up a bit but leave a bit for the plants and the birds. They will dig around the old foliage to find hidden seeds or bugs.

When the weather is safely warm, clean up to your heart’s content and you can also enjoy all the new growth that will be coming up.

It’s a win/win. I have to take some column space here to chastise all the smokers who are throwing their butts on the ground. Erin Tweksberry and his crew work hard to keep our town clean. To see butts on the ground when a trash can is just feet away is a sad statement.

I am even finding them IN the containers when the trash can was right next to it. I also find gum, lollipops and the occasional beer can. As mama would have said, “shame on you” But back to our winterstalwart plants.

A recommended book is The Garden in Winter: Plant for Beauty and Interest in the Quiet Season by Suzy Bales. That is just one of many, but the idea is to learn how to create a “winter garden” so you can enjoy it all four seasons.

And now you know what comes next – Hug Someone. What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness. ~Author Unknown

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