The Northwest Garden in Winter

By: Mary Wilbur

Mary Wilbur, a native of Wales, worked in the field of psychiatric care, and has gardened in England and New…

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A Meyer lemon fruits heavily, even in this coastal garden. Photographs by Doug Ploehn - See more at:

A Meyer lemon fruits heavily, even in this coastal garden. Photographs by Doug Ploehn

It is February 2, as I begin to write this, and *the first miniature daffodils are already out. Much as I love them, I don’t feel we deserve them in this mild climate of the Northwest coast. Years of gardening in the Northeast tell me that the prerequisite should be a gray, bleak season. Although the daffodils are welcome here, they don’t burst upon the eye with breathtaking freshness, as they do in a colder climate after a long cruel winter.

Here, the garden chores continue through the winter— no sitting in front of the fire poring over garden catalogs and planning for spring. The weeds continue to grow, albeit not as fast, and all those plants that considerately die back in the Northeast wait patiently for the gardener’s pruning shears to declare dormancy At this time of year, the weather seems ripe for “moving around,” a major occupation for gardeners that non-gardeners find hard to grasp. Rain provides the only surcease from garden labor.

Winter here is unpredictable but can usually be relied on to provide most of our forty-five inches of annual rainfall and to offer temperatures ranging in the 40s, 50s and 60s (F), only rarely dipping into the 30s. This February (2004) has not been typical, with temperatures in the 70s for a week at a time and little precipitation. All the rain seems to have gone south, causing devastation there and unnatural dryness here.

I don’t regret the exchange of a Northeast garden for one in the Pacific Northwest. So much more will grow here in this cool mediterranean climate, but sometimes things seem upside down. We prune the roses, for instance, in January, and I tell myself it’s for their own good as I strip off their lingering blooms and green leaves.

Aloe saponaria, echeverias, and New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Ruby Glow’) - See more at:

Aloe saponaria, echeverias, and New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Ruby Glow’)

A Productive Garden

This year, I seem to be preparing for the onset of famine. I have just planted a peach, a pear, and an apple, although I was hard pressed to find a place for them. The Meyer lemon is loaded with fruit; I am inordinately proud of it, since it flourishes so close to the ocean. Admittedly, I moved it four times before it was happy, but the process has given me a clue for where to plant the ‘Avalon’ peach—reputed to do well in this climate—but I may be pushing my luck there.

The fava beans I planted in October are now three feet high and blossoming. They love our cool weather, unlike in the Northeast, where a hot day will destroy all of the young beans. French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) soldiers on through the winter, along with the New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides), but never before this year have my peas not only reseeded themselves but have already begun producing pods.

Every winter brings the bright purple flowers of princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) and the soft pink of New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Helene Strybing’). Leptospermum does well here; both the white ‘Pink Pearl’ (pink in the bud) and the deep red ‘Ruby Glow’ are in full bloom.

More modest are the early-blooming azaleas. It seems that their colors have become less strident over the years—or perhaps I have merely selected more muted tints. A New Zealand cultivar, ‘September Snow’ (think September in New Zealand) is outstanding with pure white bell-like blossoms. Some claim it is fragrant, but I am unable to detect a scent.

A camellia that started life as a Christmas present in a small pot (I assume it must be Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’) is now six feet tall and covered in single scarlet flowers. I have no early rhododendrons, but I see the deep red ‘Cornubia’ in flower in other people’s gardens.

Chartreuse-flowered Corsican hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius) rise above a low groundcover of sedum - See more at:

Chartreuse-flowered Corsican hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius) rise above a low groundcover of sedum

Hellebores and Callas

Winter is the time for hellebores to shine and now they are at the peak of their long flowering season. Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius), planted in a bright spot under the blossoming ‘Helene Strybing’, is often mistaken for an out-ofseason hydrangea with its huge, pale green and cream flower heads. A hybrid Lenten rose (H. 5 hybridus) is more subdued, with single, nodding flowers of deep purple, and grows happily on the north side of the house with little direct sunlight.

Two fragrant shrubs are in full bloom: Boronia heterophylla showing off its sharp pink, four-petaled flowers, and Mexican orange (Choisya ternata) with white flower clusters. The yellow star-like flowers of Corokia coton-easter are early this year, dotted all over this strangely shaped plant (looking rather like a large hedgehog).

At the end of February in this unusual winter, the wisteria buds are beginning to burst, some of the Clematis grandiflora is already out, and Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ is showing hints of the dark blue mantle yet to come.

The calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) flower through the winter months. They thrive in this climate and are hard to contain; many long ago escaped to “decorate” the roadsides. This stately, handsome flower is sometimes des-cribed as funereal, but, to me the flowers speak more of the work of Edward Burne-Jones, the nineteenth-century Pre-Raphaelite painter.

Princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana)

Princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana)

Some flowers ignore the passing of the seasons: Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ continues flowering whatever the season, as do Shasta daisies and the hybrid Fuchsia ‘First Success’.

Now, in the middle of March and almost spring, the rains have begun battering the premature blossoms of the cherry and plum trees, saturating the wisteria blossoms, and knocking down those daffodils that are still flowering. Only the tulips and the blossoms of the tea tree seem unperturbed by the onslaught.

Folklore has it that farmers, dependent upon the weather and its effect on their crops, develop a philosophical turm of mind. It may be so for farmers, but not for this gardener.