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This time of year is always a good time to sit back and reflect on the previous year in the garden. What brought you joy? What was easy with big returns? What lived and what died? Most of all what new opportunities are offered for the coming season.

We had a cold snap to end a year of bizarre weather. Afterward it’s time to survey the damage. We went into this cold snap with no real cold period for plants to harden off, so the damage may seem more severe than it actually is. A lot of deciduous shrubs such as hydrangeas and fuchsias still had green leaves on them going into this cold. The leaves on these plants are obviously dead but the limbs may or may not be.

My personal recommendation is to wait and see before you cut back. Believe it or not the dead branches and foliage may protect your plants from the next cold snap.

Now for some good news – this cold will have taken its toll on some of the garden pests as well, such as insects, slugs, and snails. We can hope.

This is also a great time to cuddle up with seed and plant catalogues. Have fun and dream big. Just remember to double-check photo info. Lots of these catalogues are notorious for exaggerating colors and sizes in their photos. Check zones to make sure your choices have a good home.

Visit public gardens to see how others have handled the winter garden. Some great public gardens in our area are:

  • Bloedel Reserve (Bainbridge Island)

  • Lakewood Gardens (Lakewood)

  • Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden (Federal Way). This is also the home of the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection.

  • Kubota Garden (Seattle)

  • University of Washington Arboretum (Seattle)

Another great place to find inspiration is the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, where we are honored to be presenting our own display garden, among many other amazing display gardens, lots of vendors and all sorts of free seminars all under one roof in the warmth of the Seattle Convention Center. The show runs February 9-13th. See you there!

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Welcome to the big, cold, dark, the time of year in the northwest when we are surrounded by wet and dark weather. That being said, there are some amazing winter plants to spark interest this time of year. Blooms and foliage can bring light and cheer and even fragrance.

Let’s start with some shrubs that bloom in the winter season. Mahonias are show-stoppers and hummingbird magnets. Their bright, sulfur yellow flowers are magical as they top a columnar stem with a holly-like leaf. This plant is tough as nails, evergreen, and blooms pretty much from November on.

We have some mahonias that are native to our area, such as ‘Oregon Grape’, Mahonia nervosa, native to the Cascade regions of the Northwest, and Mahonia repens, ‘Creeping Oregon Grape’, which is also quite prolific here in the Pacific Northwest.

The real show-stoppers though are the Asian hybrids – these guys can get up to eight to ten feet tall and six to eight feet wide. Absolutely a must-have for the winter garden. Here are some varieties I recommend. Mahonia x media ‘Arthur Menzies’ is a stellar plant and big in structure with foliage that is bluish-grey-green, resembling a cross between a holly and a fern. It blooms in sprays of bright yellow flowers. Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is a bit smaller in stature than Arthur, with a softer yellow bloom. Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ has fragrant yellow blooms. Any of these varieties are a wonderful choice for winter interest and hummingbird food.

Another wonderful group of winter-blooming shrubs are winter Camellias. Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide’ is a terrific, bright red flower in the dead of winter. This shrub has beautiful dark, evergreen leaves and rigid growth habit. It is perfect for both garden and container plantings.Camellia x sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’ has an elegant white winter flower. Both of these varieties bloom through the winter.

Now for a winter shrub with eye-catching berries. There is nothing quite like Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’, also known as Beauty Berry. This shrub has the most beautiful metallic purple berries on bare limbs, a truly whimsical sight.

Another group of magical winter shrubs are the Sarcococcas. Lush green, dense, evergreen foliage hides dainty white, extremely fragrant flowers. There are three main varieties of Sarcococcas, or Sweet Box. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, is the shortest at only one to two feet tall. It is perfect for containers or a low evergreen groundcover. Sarcococca ruscifolia or ‘Fragrant Sweetbox’ is the big boy with, as its common name states, a sweet fragrance. Finally the head-scratcher of the group, Sarcococca confusa, in its youth has the traits of hookeriana but grows to be three to five feet tall.

Nothing shows off in the winter garden quite like Hellebores, an evergreen perennial that really brings the blooms into the dark days of winter. Hellebores (common name Christmas Roses) are stunning and with so many breathtaking cultivars. Dark, lush leaves hold up to the worst weather and bloom till March. This group of plants is worth checking out.

So in closing, the winter garden can be bright and cheery with blooms, even on the darkest and coldest days.

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by Michael Kerkes, CPH, Co-Owner of Crazy Hill Garden & Botanical, published as the column “Ramblings of a Crazy Gardener” in the North Bay Review

Are you thinking about spring?

It’s time to start thinking about spring! Yes, that’s right, spring. Now is the time to be purchasing and planting those delightful spring bulbs. Bulbs, corms, and tubers bring such colorful joy and hold quite a surprise from such drab looking characters.

Let’s break down the difference between these three:

First, all of the three are swollen, underground plant parts that store energy. Scientifically speaking they fall under the umbrella term, Geophyte, from the greek words for Earth and plant.

What is a corm? A corm is a vertical, fleshy, underground stem that acts as a food storage structure.

Examples of corms are Crocus, Gladiolas, and Cyclamen.

What is a bulb? A bulb is a rounded, underground storage organ present in some plants like Lilies, Daffodils, and tulips, consisting of a short stem surrounded by fleshy scale leaves or leaf bases. Bulbs lay dormant over the winter

What is a tuber? A tuber is the thickened, underground part of a stem or rhizome. It serves as a food reserve and bears buds from which plants arise. Potatoes and Dahlias are great examples of tubers.

Now that we have the definitions out of the way, let’s have fun! With the cool fall weather comes the availability of these wonderful splashes of spring color. Bulbs, corms, and tubers start showing up on the shelves of your favorite nursery or garden center. And let’s not forget those spectacular, color catalogs that grace our mailboxes. This is where the fun begins!

Take a look at your garden and pots and figure out where you have available space. There are so many to choose from and they are all wonderful. Here are a few of my favorite spring bulbs.

  • Narcissus ‘Tete-a-tete’ (daffodil). This charming little work horse is an early bloomer, bright yellow and happy as all get out!

  • Narcissus ‘Jetfire’ (daffodil). Another early boomer with lovely yellow petals and bright orange cup. A great naturalizer. Just amazing.

  • Double Narcissi are showstoppers that bloom later and bare flowers that almost have a Rose or Peony like appearance.

  • Tulips. My favorite are the greggii varieties, sporting variegated leaves that resemble snake skin, bright red flowers and also early bloomers. Triumph varieties are tough, strong growers that stand up to our spring rains. My favorite is Paul Scherer with its stunning purple, almost black flower! So many amazing daffs and tulips to choose from.

Here are a couple of oddities you may like.

  • Aliums. Close relative to onions with wonderful globe shaped flowers that come in shades of purple/blue and white.

  • Fritillarias are another fun group of plants. My favorite is Frittillaria meleagris; this cute little flower looks almost like an upside down snake skin tulip. I love love love this plant!

I’ll wrap this up, do your homework and most importantly .... have fun!

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