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Planting for Winter: Herbaceous Things


I come from a long line of polar bears.   I am usually out in my shirtsleeves (or undershirt) while others around me are freezing.  Conversely, about the time most other people are comfortable, I’m dying from the heat.   I decided long ago not to plant for the high summer, but for the winter.

My garden comes into its own starting in November.  Let me say now, I can’t plant cabbages or pansies because of deer (and groundhogs).   Pity, because pansies give you fall, winter and spring bloom before they peter out in May.  You can plant the annual dianthus, which the varmints leave alone, and which give you the occasional bloom through warm winter spells and into spring.    My two winter mainstays for on-ground foliage are hellebores and Italian arums (sold as a bulb in the spring at Behnkes, and sometimes available in the Perennials Department).  Many people consider the Italian arum a weed, but I find it hard to dislike something with so many variations in the leaf pattern.  If you look for it, you can get it with deep green edging, white veining, spots and/or wonderful clouding on the leaf.  It comes up in November, stays green through the winter, and dies down as the summer perennials get into full growth to hide them.  Being arums, they are totally distasteful to varmints.

arum_italianItalian Arum

Hellebores are easy and fast, and you don’t have to get on your hands and knees to appreciate them.  The early hybrids of Helleborus niger (usually white, some pinkish, or will age to pink) will start blooming in late December for me if the weather is warm; when you have enough different kinds you can blur the line between the winter and spring blooming types.   Come the new year, in protected sunny spots, the earliest  H. x orientalis – also referred to as H. x hybridus—will start in.  Peak bloom comes, for me, around late February and early March—white, yellow, pink, red, deep ruby, and a slate blue—singles, doubles, anemone flowered—downward-facing, outward-facing—with picotee edges or spots (or neither).  There is no such thing as a bad one.  I have a hellebore border perhaps five feet deep and thirty feet long, mainly seed grown plants from several sources.   I tend to like the seed strains, like Pine Knot, because each plant from seed is different.  Every so often, you will find a “must have” plant…  If you have a wooded area, consider getting H. thibetanus (available by mail only).  Mine is about six inches high, and blooms in mid March (clusters of small, light pink bloom) and is a spring ephemeral.   It will be totally gone by the first of June.

cyclamen-coumCyclamen coum

The cyclamen tribe are all fall-winter-spring leafing.   I have C. hederifolium (blooms in Sept-Oct) and C. coum, (blooms in late Jan-Feb) and plan to eventually get others.  They can only be grown, as of this writing, from seed, not divisions or clones, so each one is different.  There are also the evergreen Asarums (wild ginger) with low, three inch, dark green or silver-splashed, heart-shaped  foliage.  They spread, once established, but slowly.


Some bulbs are must haves.  One is the daffodil ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’.  This is a small, King Alfred type (the classic yellow daffodil), but AFTER the first winter, if that December is warm they will be up and blooming by the New Year.   If it’s a nasty cold December they wait until late March, but are still earlier than the main crop of daffies.   You really, really need to get your hands on some fall Snowdrops too.  I have found some of them whiffy for me (meaning they died), but the plain Galanthus elwesii v. monostrictus (available online only) is a fantastic doer.  My first ones were in bloom by Thanksgiving and the rest have followed.  Because the weather is not hot, the flowers will often last straight through until January, and increase in mass, and set more seed.  Another bulb is Eranthis, the winter aconite.  Usually by February they are up and blooming like enamel-shiny golden daisies an inch above the ground, sitting on top of a ruff of small medium-dark green leaves.  They will also be totally gone by, usually, the end of April.  They increase nicely with no care; but when you move them, try to move them while the leaves are green, do this with the Snowdrops too.  They don’t mind in the least, prefer it in fact, and you can see what you’re doing.

by Jim Dronenburg

[Editor’s Note: For retail garden centers, winter blooming plants can be a challenge to both source and to market.  They often look their best when they are a) difficult to plant because it’s, you know, WINTER; b) when we have few customers; and c) when we aren’t buying outdoor plants because of a) and b).  Meanwhile, our growers face similar issues in that their winter-blooming plants look their best when they have no one ordering; so, they tend to limit their production in both variety and quantity.

We will have a terrific selection of Hellebores in March, earlier if it’s mild.  The bulbs mentioned are fall-planted, and you can get cyclamen “bulbs” from us in the fall as well.  We occasionally have hardy cyclamen in pots in the perennial department.]

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Hi, Linus. My H. thibetanus came from Chen Yi, now defunct. I have queries out to Sean Hogan at Cistus, the Tylers at Pine Knot and Tony Avent at Plant Delights. I know all of these have the plant; whether they may have a stray one for sale was the question I asked.
    My own H.t. had seedlings sprout last year; three or four will probably be offered for sale either at the PVC-NARGS booth or the Four Seasons garden club booth (both are side by side) at the Green Spring Gardens plant sale in May. Right now, however, I can’t even tell what I’ve got. Jim

  2. Hi –
    Your Hellebores are on sale right now. How do they look, and are they OK for planting as opposed to buying and planting later in the year.

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