The cool tones of the white and purple viola complement the blue fescue, as well as the ajuga in the background.
Adding color to your garden in winter can be a challenge. For many gardeners, barren beds are something we learn to live with until spring. After all, our winters can be harsh with temperatures frequently dipping below freezing. Most flowering plants do not survive in these conditions. However, there are some that flourish, and even thrive, in cooler temperatures. Brightening a winter garden doesn’t have to be difficult, you just need to pick the right plants for your conditions.
Bedding plants are the answer for many of us. While you won’t find flats of petunias and impatiens available at your garden center in November, there are plants that will brighten a bleak winter landscape. The plants listed below will provide you with a colorful garden even when everything else seems gray.
Beyond Pansies, Cabbage and Kale
When I say bedding plants for winter, most people think of pansies, cabbage and kale. While these are wonderful plants for your cold weather landscape, pansies and ornamental cabbages are not the only winter bedding plants available to Southern gardeners. In spite of our sometimes difficult winters, we have a nice variety of plants that can bring a little color to the landscape when we need it most. Go ahead and plant pansies and cabbages, but while you’re doing so, add some of the plants mentioned below and transform your garden from basic to beautiful.
Antirrhinum majus (Snapdragons)
Antirrhinum majus has long been a favorite of gardeners everywhere. Many of us played with these plants as a child, pinching the bloom to make the “mouth” open and shut. Whether it’s the bit of whimsy they bring to the landscape, or the fact that they bloom when few other plants do, snapdragons have been cherished for years. Easy to grow and available in a variety of colors from bright bold tones to soft pastels, they brighten any landscape well after the weather turns chilly.
A tender perennial in warmer zones, in Zones 5 and 6 Antirrhinum majus is grown as a hardy annual. However, there is the possibility that they will reseed and survive until spring. They are available in sizes from 10 inches to more than 36 inches tall, and bloom in late fall and early spring. Regular deadheading promotes a longer bloom time. Snapdragons make great companions for other cool-season plants such as pansies and kale.
Primula aricula 2
Primula auricula (Primroses)
Like Antirrhinum majus, Primula auricula is an old-time favorite. The bright flowers conjure up memories of gardens from years ago. Primula blooms in very early spring, around March, and produces neat compact flowers that come in a variety of colors. They are beautiful in mass plantings or in moist woodland settings. Primula thrives on moist, rich soil and some of the polyanthus hybrids (P. x polyantha) can easily be grown from seed. Because they love moist soil, watch out for slugs.
Primula is available in heights up to 2 feet tall. They do not form loose clumps like pansies, so Primula’s neat compact design is perfect for a more structured or formal garden.
Hellebores, Helleborus spp., are a great winter-blooming perennial that also provide foliage year round in the shade garden…and they’re deer resistant too!
Helleborus (Lenten Rose)
There is something mysterious about Helleborus. Blooming when the ground is still sleeping, these seemingly delicate flowers are a delight to tuck into containers and beds. Sometimes, Helleborus will even push its way through a blanket of snow to bloom, its single rose-shaped face nodding toward the ground. Most varieties grow about 2 feet tall and 15 inches wide. They need well-drained soil, otherwise, soggy roots can kill the plant.
Helleborus are best planted next to a porch or patio, anywhere their understated elegance can be appreciated. One word of warning, all parts of the plant are toxic and should be kept away from children and pets.
This yellow and purple Rebelina series viola delights in the fall garden and is in constant bloom in spring until heat and humidity set in.
Viola tricolor (Johnny-jump-ups)
For such a delicate plant, violas are wonderfully hardy. Only 6 to 8 inches high, and available in a wide variety of colors, tiny violas are perfect for cool-season beds and planters. They poke through the soil in early spring and remain blooming long after other flowers have stopped. Violas prefer cool conditions and rich, moist, well-drained soil. Deadhead for a longer bloom time. Plant violas en masse and you will transform your barren winter garden into a wonderland of color.
Winter doesn’t have to be an off-season for gardens or gardeners. Yes, it is a time to slow down, to reflect on the past season’s work and to plan for the next year. But with the right plants, your garden can still be colorful even when everything else is wintery gray. This year, move beyond pansies, cabbage and kale. Experiment with some of the flowers mentioned here and your winter will be much more colorful. Even in the “off” season.
Don’t Forget Ground Covers
While I’ve focused on flowering plants, a splash of green against the gray winter sky can have an enormous impact. A ground cover that keeps its color in winter can liven up almost any landscape. Luckily, there are several that will flourish in our area.
Some ground covers to consider are: Hedera helix (English ivy,) Brunnera (Siberian bugloss) and Vinca minor (periwinkle). Planted along borders and in beds, using these vines as ground covers can brighten your garden even in winter. Add some of the flowering plants listed above, and enjoy even more winter color.
One word of caution, some vines can be aggressive and extremely invasive. If you decide to add them to your landscaping, make sure you keep an eye on their growth, trimming them back as needed.
A version of this article appeared in Kentucky Gardener Volume 8 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of 1©iStockphoto.com/brento, 2©iStockphoto.com/hsvrs, and Susan Jasan.