ARTICLE BY: Barbara Blossom Ashmun
Barbara Blossom Ashmun is the author of seven books, most recently Love Letters to My Garden.
When I first began to garden in the 1970s all I cared about was summer. Give me roses and peonies, cosmos and cleome, salvias and sunflowers. I lived for the culmination of color and fragrance.
But as time went by I noticed that winter was when I craved color and fragrance the most. There was so little of it in my February garden that I drove to the florist and bought bouquets of cut flowers to cheer up my soul. Maybe it was time to make more of a winter garden. But mostly this was just a fleeting thought. I continued to focus on summer color and did the best I could to trudge through winter.
And then, early one summer morning the phone rang. It was my former boyfriend Phil. “Grab a shovel and get ready for a road trip. We’re going to rescue some plants!” he commanded. Phil was a rather eccentric guy who took care of the grounds at a restaurant surrounded by lush gardens, a lake, and resident geese, in exchange for room and board. We shared a passion for gardening that sustained our friendship even after we broke up.
I barely had time to throw on some gardening clothes when Phil arrived at my northeast home in his ancient Dodge van, the color of rust. As I darted out the front door with my shovel, he rolled down the passenger window, waved a quick hello, and kept the van running. “Just pitch that shovel in the back,” he yelled, pointing to the collection of picks, spades, and cartons stuffed into the back of the van.
As usual Phil was dressed in shredded jeans and a musty old flannel shirt, his curly hair flying wildly in all directions. I could tell he hadn’t taken the time to shave or eat breakfast at home. He was gnawing on a cheese sandwich, his favorite meal, and chugging on a water bottle. Phil was in an even bigger hurry than usual, and he explained why as we drove out to east county.
“I just heard that a wholesale nursery shut down and was sold to developers. They’re tearing everything out and gonna start building soon. If we’re lucky we’ll get there in time to save some plants,” he said. “You won’t believe what they’re going to bulldoze!”
“What kind of plants?” I asked.
“I don’t know what they’re called, but I bet they’ll be interesting when they bloom. I’ll split them with you, if you want them.”
We drove through the countryside and pulled up to a property with several abandoned greenhouses, tattered plastic blowing in the wind. We jumped out of the van and grabbed our shovels and a few cartons. Phil strode so quickly towards the old greenhouses and beyond them that I could barely keep up with his long strides.
As soon as I caught up with him, I wasn’t sure what he was so excited about. Plain green plants with lobe-shaped leaves grew in drifts underneath some huge oak trees. But I figured if this was such a big nursery in its day, these plants were probably valuable. We had nothing to lose but time and energy.
We dug and dug until we were soaked in sweat, and we filled all the cartons that Phil had packed in his van. He had plenty of acreage, but back then I only had a small city garden. I took two cartons worth, which Phil helped me plant the minute we got back to my house.
It wasn’t until the next January that I understood what amazing treasure we had collected. The green plants burst into bloom in January, with flowers that lit up the winter garden. White, pale green, and pink flowers, some even flecked and freckled with burgundy markings, formed a carpet of glorious color in the dead of winter. Mind you, this was way before hellebores became widely known and popular—it was in the 1990s that hybridizers began to produce doubles and more vivid colors.
Those first hellebores traveled with me to my second garden of nearly an acre, and I loved them so much that I encouraged them to self-sow by shoveling compost under the mother plants so that seedlings would germinate easily as soon as the seed pods split open in early summer.
Beyond hellebores I continued to plant for winter. Now I have enough color to enjoy even in the foulest weather by looking out the picture window in my office. The gleaming foliage from two columnar Cupressus ‘Donard Gold’ is first to catch my eye, especially on a gray winter morning. Next, a collection of dwarf conifers growing happily in containers—especially varieties of Korean and Spanish firs, and mugo and white pines in shades of blue-green, gold and green.
Broadleaved evergreen shrubs with variegated leaves also brighten the garden in winter. Some favorites include Abelia ‘Kaleidascope’ and ‘Sunshine Daydream’, Lonicera nitida ‘Lemon Beauty’, Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’, and Elaeagnus ‘Hosoba Fukurin’. For shade, I’m crazy about the variegated forms of Fatsia japonica—‘Spiderweb,’ ‘Camouflage’ and ‘Spilt Milk’.
But plants don’t have to be super showy to make me happy in winter. The most subtle is glossy green sweet box, Sarcococca ruscifolia, which grows quietly in the shade of an elderly apple tree. Then in winter, tiny white flowers waft sweet fragrance, enticing you to discover this easy-going shrub. Snowdrops thrill me when their white flowers open to announce that winter is not so bad, after all. And lately, I have planted almost enough pink and white Cyclamen coum to accompany the snowdrops for a sweep of color in front of the hellebores.
Recently, on a chilly winter day, my friend Carolyn called. “I was taking a walk in my garden to see what’s blooming, and there were snowdrops and cyclamen flowering together, shining happiness all over. It just makes me smile. How pretty God’s world is. That’s why we garden,” she said.
“Yes, I agree! I’m going out right now to take a walk in my garden. You just made my day,” I said. I hung up with a smile on my face.
Note: Photo of Hellebores at the top of this post is by Henry Hemming via Flickr.