T.S. Eliot considered April was the cruelest month. For me, that cruelest month has always been January. April at least offers hope and springing green. January is bleak and cold, grey and brown.
You’d think that I’d be hardened to the cold - I had five winters on the Kansas prairie, after all. But I’m still a wimp. I’m a Mississippi Valley boy who flinches at the breath of cold and cancels work at the threat of snow. Monet’s Le Pie, with its frosty white-blues and slash of shadow, is one of my favorite paintings. But I’ll sit and enjoy it from beneath a pile of blankets.
It’s at this time of year that regional differences of climate and planting styles emerge in dramatic ways. In the southeastern part of the United States - late winter is a particularly weird time for gardens. The relatively warm temperatures, dramatic freeze and thaw cycles, plus abundant winter rains mean that gardens in the southeast have a range of winter issues that aren’t as troubling in other parts of the United States. Winter weeds, mostly annuals, are particularly problematic. They germinate abundantly in and around dormant gardens - emerging early in the season and crowding out tender emergent growth. Weeks of warm weather foster tender new growth which is then blasted to a quick death by sudden cold snaps. Lack of snow cover plus excessive freeze thaw cycles cause frost heave, damaging the tender crowns of tender perennials. Abundant rainfall cause vegetation to break down quickly, reducing soil cover and promoting erosion. Grasses that stand proud and sparkling in the heavy frost of colder regions, or delicately crowned with snow, are soon disintegrated into mush.
As a designer, I want to understand how regional garden traditions and local plant communities have evolved to thrive in the unique conditions of the southeastern United States. Here are some strategies that I’ve observed for winter success.
Evergreen Foliage Southern gardens are dominated by an A-B-C-M plant palette. That’s Azalea, Boxwood, Camellia, Magnolia for those not indoctrinated in the southern garden tradition. Many southern gardens don’t look all that different in January than they do in July. Brown turf with flecks of green, mounds and billows of green leaves - matte or shiny. Not a flower to be seen. In wild landscapes, you’re most likely to find larger evergreens buried deep in the forest - hidden specimens of southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) or American holly (Ilex opaca) down in ravines, hidden from wind, sheltered deep in the midst of the forest. You’ll also find evergreens closer to ground level, tucked up against the warm earth. Flick your hand through the cover of leaves and you’ll turn over the delicate sprigs of partridge berry (Mitchellia repens) or Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).
Densely Interwoven Plant Communities Plant communities that interlock closely - grass matrixes interspersed with low evergreen shrubs, forbes, and/or ferns - cover ground and protect the soil from erosion. Last year, at Kisatchee in northern Louisiana, I saw incredible communities built from an array of native grasses, interwoven with low plants of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) kept small by fire, with incredible intermingled silver fronds of southern wood fern (Thelypteris kunthii). Layers of fallen plant material - pine needles, dropped leaves, branches, grass thatch - diffuse the impact of rainfall on the ground.
Sporadic Winter Bloom Given North America’s often dramatic fluctuations in winter temperatures, it’s unsurprising that only a few native species find it worthwhile to devote their energy to producing winter flowers. Ozark witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is one of the few that flowers in warm spells throughout the winter, starting in October and continuing through winter - depending on the individual plant’s proclivities. Species from many parts of Asia are less prudent. On a quick drive through any southern town, you’ll find cultivated favorites in bloom on any warm day - wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), and Sweet Box (Sarcoccocca hookeriana humilis). Some Mediterranean species are also favorites in southern winter gardens. Think Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) and Paperwhite Daffodils (Narcissus papyraceous).
January has passed. The thirty day satisfaction guarantee to the New Year is up. February has arrived, bringing spring in its wake. Ready for it?