By Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
I recently received a copy of a book called "The Garden in Winter." Imagining what I would see inside, I opened the book, and the pictures were just what I had expected. The pages were filled with snowy scenes. Drifts of snow blanketed garden beds, and snow covered bare twigs and branches like the divinity candy my grandmother used to make. Garden statues and artwork were embellished with mounds and topknots of snow.
All of the gardens pictured were austere and bare, with their "bones" showing though the snow here and there. I suppose it was lovely in its way, but I have to say that it made me shiver just to look at those snowy scenes. And it certainly did not have anything whatsoever to do with our Louisiana gardens in winter.
Donít get me wrong. I can appreciate the beauty of snow. But I appreciate even more the beauty of broadleaved evergreen trees, like live oaks, hollies, Southern magnolias, cherry laurels and loquats, and evergreen shrubs like azaleas, mahonia, Indian hawthorns, gardenias, hollies, camellias and viburnums
If the only difference between landscapes here and up North during winter was our extensive use of broadleaved evergreens, then I really couldnít make my point as well. But much more than that is going on in our landscapes.
For one thing, some of the broadleaved evergreens arenít content just to retain their foliage through the winter, they deck themselves out. Consider camellias (Camellia japonica). All winter long these amazing shrubs produce large, flamboyant flowers that brighten our landscapes from December through March. Other winter bloomers may not be so flashy, but sweet olives (Osmanthus fragrans), leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) delight us with their enchanting fragrances on mild days throughout the winter season.
There are also plants that actually do most of their growing here during the winter. Our native Louisiana irises grow from October through April. Other winter-growing herbaceous perennials include calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica), Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum) and acanthus (Acanthus mollis). These plants provide rich, green foliage and wonderful textures in the winter landscape.
All of the spring-flowering bulbs grow through the winter in Louisiana, providing patches of spiky, upright green foliage. I sometimes am asked about protecting the foliage during low temperatures. Generally, you can relax. The foliage of spring bulbs, like narcissuses, snowflakes and Dutch iris, to name a few, is quite hardy, and there is no need for concern. Open flowers are more prone to freeze damage should temperatures reach the mid-20s. Some narcissuses, such as paperwhites, bloom during the winter months. Should a hard freeze threaten, harvest the open flowers to enjoy in vases indoors.
And speaking of plants in active growth during winter, we continue to plant and grow a wide variety of cool-season vegetables and herbs through the winter season. Some of the most delicious and nutritious vegetables can be grown in Louisiana only during cool to cold winter weather, including broccoli, cabbage, carrots, turnips, mustard greens, lettuce and green onions. And we are able to harvest many herbs during that time as well, such as parsley, cilantro, thyme, oregano and chives. Feel free to keep your vegetable and herb gardens productive by planting hardy herbs and vegetables throughout the winter.
Of course, one of the things that makes our winter landscapes come alive the most is our use of colorful, cool-season bedding plants, such as pansies, violas, dianthus, alyssum, snapdragons and many others.
These indispensable plants provide abundant and vibrant color for the winter flower garden.
Although the best display is seen in spring (late February through early May), enough flowers are produced during normal, mild winters to dress up the landscape beautifully.
Like cool-season vegetables and herbs, you can continue to plant cool-season bedding plants through February or early March.
Let me make one more point regarding cool-season bedding plants.
In April some gardeners are going to covet the amazing display of pansies, petunias, dianthus and other cool-season bedding plants exploding with color in area gardens.
And you will run out to your favorite nursery and load up you car with flats of these plants, hoping to create the same beauty in your landscape – but you will fail.
Late-spring-planted cool-season bedding plants never achieve the spectacular beauty of those planted from October through February.
For the best floral display, do yourself a favor and go ahead and get them planted by the end of February.
So although they do not have the lush look of summer, our landscapes appear neither totally bleak nor lifeless during winter.
Some plants retain foliage, grow and bloom all through the winter season.
For gardeners who make abundant use of broad-leaved evergreens, winter-blooming trees and shrubs, and cool-season bedding plants,
Spring can be more like a climax to the growth and color that occur through the winter rather than a reawakening from a drab, bare, snowy season.