Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
January, 2009
Regional Report

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The airy, golden flowers of Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine' create a halo above the towering stems.

Winter's Charms

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: winter is not my favorite season. It's cold and there is ice and snow. Yet I find myself enjoying it for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it is the interlude when I'm not totally wracked with guilt for not working in the garden 24/7. (Already the plant and seed catalogs are luring me into thinking I can, once again, have and do it all.) But from a more positive perspective, winter actually makes me more aware of plants, the landscape, and my environment.

Look at Native Trees
This is a good time to appreciate the shapes and forms of native plants, especially our trees. Some of these may give you suggestions for your own garden, while others are best appreciated in their native habitats. No doubt, when we first think of native tree, maples, oaks, and dogwood first come to mind, but there are others (or their relatives) that should be considered.

Northern areas may have those stunning white-barked birches, but for much of our region, we have the sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). The handsome, cream-to-olive-colored exfoliating bark is especially handsome in winter when it contrasts with the dark bark of other trees. Growing up to 100 feet tall, it is not a tree for every yard, but if you have the space and a site with deep, moist soil, it is a tree worth considering.

A relative, the London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) is widely used as a street tree because of its tolerance to a wide range of conditions. Noted cultivars include 'Bloodgood', 'Liberty', 'Columbia', and 'Yarwood'. In Europe, these are often planted in allees.

A smaller charmer for the landscape is sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Ubiquitous in fence rows, sassafras is a delight on close inspection for bearing leaves in three different shapes. Crush these to release a spicy scent. In the fall the leaves provide some of our best seasonal color, but the winter interest is no less appealing. Each of the branches turns upward at the ends, creating a distinctive candelabra effect. Although widely adaptable, sassafras is difficult to transplant unless moved as a small container-grown plant. Group them in the landscape for naturalistic plantings.

Ornamental Grasses
Although ornamental grasses have only been widely used in gardens in the last thirty years or so, it's hard to imagine being without them, especially during the winter. They give texture, dimension, and sound to the winter garden. Besides the many maiden grass cultivars in a wide range of sizes, I am particularly fond of the native switch grasses (Panicum spp.), with my favorite being the cultivar 'Cloud Nine'. This plant grows to 6 feet or taller with a veritable froth of seed heads.

And Then, the Critters
With a window and a bird feeder, you can turn off the television and have your own personal soap opera to watch as the chickadees contend with the cardinals with the sparrows with the finches with the juncos ... well, you get the picture. There is endless fascination in seeing who drops by. Recently I watched the pileated woodpeckers dine on frozen persimmons while dangling upside down from the topmost branches. Several days ago, the first fox I'd seen in years trotted across the pasture.

There is hope and delight in a new year, a new day. May you enjoy each moment.

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