Updated: Nov 4, 2022
In the cold winter months I always begin to think about what can be grown to keep this season from seeming so long and dark. Flowers and fresh vegies are a way to keep the winter doldrums away. If you are lucky enough to live in a warm zone you can continue to grow outside and there are many flowers which love the cool winter months.
I first began gardening in southern California, a very different climate from where I am now. Winter was actually a reprieve from the hot summer when it was often difficult to keep plants alive. With the drought they have been experiencing now for a number of years water conservation has become extremely important and it is even more difficult to keep plants going during periods with no rain.
When I had my little town lot in suburban southern California my favorite winter flower to grow was sweet peas. By starting them in the late fall they would be in full bloom during the mid-winter. Spring comes early to the hot inland valley in southern California where I lived and by March many spring flowers would be about done, but in January and February I could cut huge sweet pea bouquets to bring in the house or to take into my office for others to enjoy. Very few people seemed to know that they could grow these beauties in the winter and it was a special treat for everyone.
When I think of winter gardening I think of tender little lettuces that do not like the summer heat and which can be grown in the shoulder seasons of fall and spring, but also in the winter with proper cover. My favorite source for really unusual heirloom vegie seeds and all kinds of heirloom lettuce is wildgardenseed.com They have some unusual seed for ancient plants you may have never heard of, such as Alexanders. It was a plant grown by the Romans and taken to the British Isles in early days. Said to be a favorite of Alexander the Great, hence the name. It requires care to germinate, but grows over the winter months. Another is 'Belle Isle' Cress, which is at its best in the cold of winter. The story goes that Portuguese sailors in the 1600s were shipwrecked by a nor'easter on Belle Isle and warded off scurvy by eating this phytonutrient rich green and took the seeds back to Europe.
We have two large high tunnels which are used primarily for growing ranunculus, anemones and eucalyptus, and other flower crops. These are an ideal place for salad greens in cool months--if I can set aside a little space. We also have a very small heated greenhouse where a few seeds may be started and plants can be held. I usually try to overwinter a rosemary and some other herbs, but they do not always survive. Keeping a greenhouse above freezing every single night of the whole winter is a real commitment. Pests love to find the plants that are in that space and sometimes overwhelm them and heaters and thermostats can let you down, but we usually get to enjoy the plants for most of the winter.
The river behind our house on a cold morning in January.
I'm writing today on what I hope is one of the coldest days of this winter (Jan. 22, 2022). The thermometer outside our back door registered at -2 F just after sunrise and 5 F in the high tunnel just before my husband went out and turned on the heater. This is the kind of day where I hope that the greenhouse heater has been able to keep alive the plants I'm trying to overwinter--ferns, Mexican sage, scented geranium, precious baby plants that haven't made it into the ground yet, etc. Although fall lasted an unusually long time, it's already been a cold winter here in western Maryland and we've had many days that have dipped into the teens. But February is almost here and it's a short month! Then it's March and spring in the high tunnels.
Plants in the old wide window sills--on cold nights I move them to a table away from the glass
This is a bit of a rambly post, but really, the point is that there are plants that actually prefer cool weather and we can grow them in the fall and spring--some outside and some under cover, some on our window sills. In the winter those of us in cold climates can enjoy indoor bulbs like amaryllis inside and of course there are gorgeous houseplants, too. The pictures above shows a ‘Bolero’ amaryllis in a custom pot and saucer made by @shermanceramics for my farmer friend @whisperingflowerfarm The next two pictures show the amaryllis blooming. Our house has very deep window sills because the stone walls are two feet thick and this is especially nice in the winter. I can fill these spaces with pots. Many people like to force bulbs for Christmas, but I personally like to grow them in January when we are most in need of something fresh and pretty.
We can also start to cut branches at this time of year. It can take longer for them to come into bloom, but pussy willows are ready to burst out and a branch I cut a few days ago is perfectly open after just three days. A cut forsythia branch in my kitchen is pushing out buds, but will probably take a week or so to fully open. Witch hazel (below) is just starting to bloom. It blooms in the cold and we have to watch for it or we might miss it. The sweet smell can fill a room.
Spring is coming...