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Gardens: winter gardens


The joy of winter gardens

This is a joyous time of year, but for gardeners it can be a little sad. December, after all, heralds the beginning of winter and a lull in the gardening season. But we can keep the joy of gardening alive in our yards and hearts through those winter months by using a wide array of cool-season plants.

One of the most popular and iconic of these plants is the camellia. Native to Asia, the camellia has been such a staple in southern landscapes that it feels like it’s ours — it is Alabama’s state flower after all. And, with thousands of cultivars and hybrids to choose from, the options for using these winter-blooming beauties are abundant.

Two species of camellias — C. japonica and C. sasanqua — form the basis for the plants used in our landscapes. Each offers slightly different characteristics that, mixed and matched with one another and other plants, can provide gorgeous blooms from fall through early spring.

C. sasanquas, which generally range in height from 2 to 12 feet at maturity, typically begin blooming earlier in the year than their japonica cousins and produce white or pink, usually non-fragrant single or double blooms.

Japonica camellias, on the other hand, can grow from 6 to 25 feet in height and usually begin blooming a little later in the season. Japonicas also come in a wider selection of often fragrant bloom options in colors of white, pink, rose, red and mixed red and pink, and in bloom forms ranging from single cup-shaped flowers to more ornate double blooms resembling anemones, peonies and roses.

Both species are evergreen, are quite drought tolerant once they are established and, with proper care, can live for years — more than one hundred years in some cases. Providing that care can be easy, especially if you tap into the many expert resources available through state camellia societies and clubs (see a partial list of these at or through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, which offers publications and expert advice on camellia culture.

But camellias are not alone in providing magical blooms and interest to a winter landscape. Forsythia, flowering quince, witch hazel, winter jasmine and honeysuckle, Japanese magnolia and even blueberries are great landscape plants for winter and early spring blooms. Mix these with other trees and shrubs, such as maples and hollies, and winter- and spring-blooming bulbs and you’ll never be without something spectacular in the garden.

Most of these perennial plants can be planted right now, but newly planted shrubs, trees and bulbs may not offer the full beauty of their blooms until next year. If you can’t wait and want some immediate winter joy in your life, use cool-season annual and herbaceous perennial plants — pansies, calendula, ornamental kale and cabbage, snapdragons, poppies, salvias, hellebores and hardy cyclamen among them — in garden beds and containers.

In addition to adding beauty and joy to the winter landscape, these plants also often help feed birds, bees and other wild things, so you’ll be doing a service to nature while feeding your gardening joy. You can also feed your family this winter with winter vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, beets, onions and leafy greens, most of which can be planted from now into February.

These are just a few of the many ways to keep the joy of gardening alive this winter. For more ideas, look online for lists of winter plants suited for your area or check with local nursery and garden centers, botanical gardens, Extension offices or Master Gardener groups for some joyful inspiration.

December Tips

      •  Prepare garden beds by adding organic matter and other soil nutrients.
      •  Test your soil to find out what nutrients need to be added for the coming growing season.
      •  Plant bare-root roses, trees, shrubs, vines and spring-flowering bulbs.
      •  Apply mulch around newly planted trees and shrubs and tender perennials.
      •  Prune hardy deciduous and evergreen trees and summer-blooming shrubs.
      •  Sow seeds for winter or cool-season vegetables and cool-season annuals.
      •  Keep an eye out for off-season deals on lawn and garden equipment and furniture.
      •  Begin selecting vegetable and flower seed for spring and summer planting from online or printed catalogs.
      •  Start an indoor herb garden.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at