Beds of pansies, pots of ornamental cabbage, borders of narcissus . . . who says winter has to be bleak? Here in Texas with our nippy nights, warm sunny days, and a norther thrown in every once in a while to remind us it's December, winter is the flower gardener's most relaxed growing season. Without the green and growing jungle for competition, a simple splash of color goes a long way and here are a few ideas for cool season blooms.
Pansies, with their jewel tones and ability to take sleet or sun, are our most popular winter planting. Caveat emptor! Though happy-faced pansies will beckon to you from every store front from Labor Day on, resist the temptation to purchase until your evening temperatures get below 70 degrees; pansies don't like the heat. Most insects are long gone by the time your winter beds are thriving but sometimes in the warmer fall weather, roly polys will fatten themselves on your pansies, like a bear gorging on berries before winter. If you have a serious roly poly problem, you have two choices - replant after the first frosts or try a ring of diatomaceus earth around each plant - the drawback to this is that you have to reapply the diatomaceus earth each time you water.
Tiny violas, like "johnny jump ups," and wood violets are the tough, enduring grandparents of the pansy family. While common purple and yellow "johnny jump ups" (Viola cornuta var. Helen Mount) are good reseeding annuals; yellow, purple, and white flowered violets are perennials here in Texas. Bedding violas, in the same colors, are available at nurseries in the fall and make nice borders and filler in pots. Though these violas are full of the same diminutive charm as the "johnny jumps" (as my grandson calls them), they are not reliable reseeders which means you'll miss out on the fun of finding them popping up in the gravel of your driveway, between the cracks in the sidewalk and in your spring lawn.
Ornamental cabbage and ruffley kale are excellent color plants for containers and beds. These are colored varieties of common members of the edible cabbage family and come in beautiful rosettes of purple, lavender, rose, and bicolor green and white. Like pansies, the only time you'll have insect problems is in warm weather, and it's cabbage loopers that will be doing the feasting in this case. A spray or dusting of a BT (bacillus thuringiensis) product is very effective. When purchasing these long-lived annuals, don't try to save money buying little ones, thinking that they will grow out to their mature 15" diameter - they will, but not till the weather warms up in the spring. Choose plants with shorter stems and pick ones big enough to fill your pots or beds this winter. Deal with spring growth when the time comes. I've had many people brag on their 2 and 3 year old - and 2 and 3 foot tall - cabbage "conversation pieces." If you keep them into the summer, like aging collards, their leaves become so leathery and tough that no bug is interested in them so they keep growing. If you "top" them, little cabbages pop out along the stem like brussels sprouts!
The creamy ribs and deep green puckered leaves of ordinary garden Swiss chard make it a handsome winter landscaping plant. Now, Swiss chard also comes in red and yellow ribbed varieties, creating a cheerful ribbon effect in borders or a striking center for a container. Again, either buy your plants early enough so that they can grow out or buy them the actual height you'll need, as their growth will be on-hold throughout the winter months. Swiss chard also does some interesting things when left in the ground through the warm weather, I just harvested a huge specimen with a 5" in diameter stem this past July.
Other edibles that make wonderful winter color are the maroon rosettes of radiccio, frilly red leafed lettuce and deep purple Osaka mustard for pots and borders. Bright green curled parsley is a dual purpose cool season border that can look perky in snow, sleet or hail and be harvested for winter soups and stews as well. From Dallas southward, gray, lacey-leafed rue (usually) stays evergreen, adding interest to winter beds. The tiny blue winter flowers of the rosemary don't exactly make a major color statement but in combination with the deep green, scented foliage, this shrub is a must for winter gardens except in the coldest parts of Texas.
Bedding dianthus or "pinks" are practical choices for winter color. Though they tend to bloom only in the warmer spells, dianthus will last well into the spring and summer eliminating the need to replant until the next fall. Dianthus come in white, purple and red, including some interesting picotees.
In mild winters and warmer parts of the state, geraniums bloom all winter. The size of their red, salmon, pink, and white blooms makes them worth considering for container planting elsewhere too, though this will involve giving them wind protection and bringing them in when the temperature gets down to 32 degrees.
Cyclamen and primroses are also touchy about that 32 degree mark but like geraniums, they give such great color, they're worth the norther precautions. Cyclamen blossoms in tropical hues of pink, red, and purple as well as a white-as-snow white, and nod gracefully on 6"-8" stems. Primroses, come in a tall (8"-10") and short variety, each having the characteristic crinkly basal leaves. The shorter primroses have showy flowers in bright primary reds, yellows, purples, blues, and oranges while the taller include pastel colors. A light covering with a tea towel, is usually sufficient on chilly nights for these frost tender plants.
Bulb beds can provide rewarding winter color. Most commonly known to the Texas gardener is the ubiquitous Narcissus tazetta (paper whites). In a mild December, you will see banks of fragrant paper whites bordering yards in older neighborhoods. Combining white narcissus and Galanthus ("snow drops") little yellow and purple Crocus and golden jonquils in a bed will cheer up any winter day. Reblooming bearded iris are another possibility for unusual cool season bloom - with the right weather conditions. If you have rebloomers, try fertilizing them in late August and giving them additional water throughout the fall. You may be surprised with a bouquet of iris in December.
Berries are another aspect to be considered for winter color. Hollys, nandinas and pyracantha all have red, orange, or yellow berries that are not a bird's first choice, so stay decorated throughout the winter. While American beauty berry's beautiful purple fruits don't last as long, they are a favorite of mine in November and December. Native berry crops vary from year to year, but you'll always find the delicate arching canes of (magenta colored) coral berry dotted with berries throughout the winter. On a good year coral berry will look like a row of purple mums blooming at the edge of a wood.
Foliage is another source of winter color. Hardy, old fashioned "purple heart" lives on and makes a colorful border plant as far north as Dallas. Plain ol' grocery-store-bedding-plant "dusty miller" is an indispensable "white" for pots and beds, fall through spring. Anything evergreen, like the rosemary mentioned, whether it has bloom or not, will give structure to your beds in winter and should be included in your landscaping design.
Lastly, there are many perennial shrubs, trees and flowers that bloom in between cold spells to brighten up our winter. "Lo, how a rose ere blooming" . . . everblooming roses, like La Marne, Katy Road, Belinda's Dream, and Dame de Coeur, will often bloom in the winter. The tiny pink, white, cherry, or lavender flowers of "thrift," a ground cover phlox, bloom from January thru June. Scabiosa or "pin cushion plant," makes a mound of serrated evergreen leaves and puts up one inch pin cushion-headed flowers whenever it feels like it, winter included. Salvia superba, a tough meadow rue cross, also blooms off and on through the winter as far north as Dallas. Lenten rose (Helleborus niger) is an interesting and reliable winter bloomer with sufficient water and protection in the northern parts of the state. Low growing "nana" coreopsis and native hymenoxis ("four nerve daisy") are two hardy yellows to be counted on for winter color. Several verbenas, "Magenta Lace" and Mexican verbena (pink) in particular, often make as good a show in winter as they do in summer.
From the first of the year on, it's always a treat to see how early the first bright coral flowers will begin blooming on the bare limbs of the enduring Japanica (flowering quince) and its partner, white ruffled, flowering almond - another harbinger of spring. Though inconspicuous, the cool season blooms of Chinese witch-hazel, winter honeysuckle and elaeagnus, more than make up for themselves by emitting sweet floral scents so often absent "amidst the flood of winter." All of these hardy plantings take little care and will give much delight in their bare surroundings.