Half past fall foliage and a quarter to the New Year, here we are on the doorstep of the Winter Solstice — the longest night, the biggest dark, when sensible creatures go slow and hunker down. Here in the Pacific Northwest, one of the northernmost geographical points in the continental US, we get (just barely) half the number of daylight hours than we enjoy on the celestial flip side in summer. And by daylight, I mean overcast, stormy and cold.
Every fiber of my mortal coil suggests that maybe this would be a good time to take a nap.
You’d think we gardeners, tethered to daylight, warmth, and growth, would have a decent grip on seasonal rhythms. Yet somehow, once the last tulip is tucked into the soil and the dark season descends, many of us lose our garden sense and fall into a hectic holiday season marked by artificial (flashing!) lights and a headstrong rush to an arbitrary deadline determined by the economics of retail. Pardon my Grinch. I’m afraid I’m still exorcising the ghosts of holidays past.
Fortunately, the landscape restores my good humor. My winter garden carries on independent of my efforts, but it would be a shame to look away and miss this quiet but generous season.
Undaunted by the cold and dark, ‘Arthur Menzies’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Arthur Menzies) is a bright star. The dramatic vase-shaped shrub grows to around 8-feet tall and from November through February its inky green foliage is crowned with sprays of golden flowers, which prove irresistible to overwintering Anna’s hummingbirds.
Just off the back stoop, pink dawn viburnum (Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’) produces a continuous display of shell pink flowers, teasing the air with a spicy fragrance. The show is never extravagant, and occasionally, an artic freeze will blast every blossom, but the venerable shrub seems to have endless reserves of new buds that open once temperatures rebound. Blooming, which begins in mid-November, carries on into early April.
Here in the Puget Sound basin, we don’t typically get much snow, but when we do I rush to capture the effect on the pleached crabapple (Malus ‘Evereste’) hedge at the back of the garden. I’m not sure what I was thinking, or just who I thought would maintain this demanding garden feature, but such thoughts are for spring and summer. In winter, it all makes sense when I see plump red fruit on bare branches.
The Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis) is showing its first buds in my dark and sodden garden. Even though the plants in my garden are ancient, every year I gasp in delight at the sight of the first blossom. Some wonders never grow old.
Blooming in an uncharacteristic season but familiar in form, 2-inch lavender-purple flowers with white and deep gold markings first begin to appear sometime between November and December. Blossoming continues off and on throughout winter, pausing only for exceptionally cold spells when temperatures drop into the teens.
Dense clumps of strappy leaves that grow to around 18 inches tall are attractive in every season and the plants happily bloom for years without division. Perhaps in a concession to weathering winter conditions, the flowers appear nestled deep within the foliage. While the foliage is pest-proof and both rabbit- and deer-resistant, if left unchecked, slugs and snails will devour every blossom.
Recently I’ve taken to cutting the evergreen foliage back in fall to better show off the blooms. I (attempt to) manage marauding mollusks with organic iron phosphate slug and snail bait, but even the nibbled blossoms make dreary days brighter. While I’ve grown Algerian iris for years, just last winter I began harvesting the long-necked blossoms—technically, those “necks” are pronounced perianth tubes that are up to 8 inches long—as a cut flower. The blooms have a delicious, honeyed fragrance and hold well in a bud vase for days. So far, the slugs haven’t followed the flowers indoors.