Just because it’s winter and bleak does not mean there are not any blooming beauties in the garden. There are many wonderful choices for early flowering shrubs that are welcome additions to our gardens in Columbia. Who can resist the fabulous aroma of a stunning blooming Daphne odora? Who doesn’t get excited to see the first blooming forsythia in late winter or very early spring? There is nothing like that big burst of bright yellow bell-shaped flowers to grant relief from the bleakness of winter.
The trophy of winter flowering shrubs is surely Camellia japonica. Many Midlands gardens are decorated with a variety of these stunning flowers. The blooms come in all shades from white to light pink to deep, dark red. Camellias prefer slightly acidic soil. Most gardens in the older neighborhoods of Columbia are fortunate to have rich, acidic soils. If there are pine trees shedding their needles, the surrounding soil will usually be somewhat acidic. There are thousands of varieties of Camellias –– I suggest shopping when the plants are in full bloom. Buy the ones that appeal to you and that you have space for in the garden. I am not a big proponent of using Camellias as foundation plants. They are much better suited to be used as specimen shrubs. Give them plenty of room. They can get very tall and very wide. Here is a list of some of my favorites:
Mary Alice Cox
Tomorrow Crown Jewel
Another favorite for the winter flowering garden is Daphne odora. Daphne is a compact flowering shrub whose beauty is only outdone by its intoxicating fragrance, and there are varieties both with solid dark green or variegated leaves. Usually blooming in February, Daphne prefer a shady to mostly-shady spot in the garden. They are best used as a foundation shrub in front of the house or as a specimen in another part of the garden. Daphne are slow growing plants that must have good drainage and should be planted far enough away from the roofline of a house so that they are not flooded by runoff. They usually bloom in February and have very fragrant blossoms. Plant one or more near your outdoor living space so the fragrance can be enjoyed on a warm winter day. A few cut stems taken into the house will flood all the rooms with delightful aroma.
Flowering quince is another beautiful and welcome harbinger of spring. Quince is a very early-bloomer whose blossoms are seen in late January to February. They are deciduous and usually deer resistant. It is a woody shrub that will grow 4 to 6 feet high and 5 to 6 feet wide. Give them room to spread their branches and grow into their natural shape as they do not look natural when sheared with electric trimmers. Quince thrive in sun to part-shade and bear fruit that may be used to make jelly.
Because they are basically pest-free and deer resistant, they are considered to be easy care plants. After the shrubs are established, they require little water and survive our intensely hot summers with little attention. Quince respond well to having the old wood pruned in April after flowering. Prune any crossing or dead branches. This is a perfect plant to force into bloom indoors. Their blooms come in a variety of colors from white to pink to red. My favorite varieties are: ‘Nivales’ which has a white blossom; ‘Cameo’ which is a fabulous double peach variety; and my favorite, ‘Texas Scarlet’ which is bright red. These early bloomers definitely earn their space in the garden.
Forsythia is the quintessential early flowering shrub that adorns Columbia with its bright yellow bell-shaped blooms in late January and February. When these blooms appear, warmer weather is most certainly on its way. Forsythia bushes thrive in full sun and bloom much better the more sun they receive. Mature forsythia can grow to 8 to 10 feet tall and 7 to 10 feet wide. They definitely need a lot of space in the garden and look their best when planted in large swaths with room to grow into their natural shape.
Just like Quince, they look better and are healthier if they are not sheared but are allowed to spread their limbs. Forsythia are very useful when planted on a slope or bank. They are particularly pretty if planted in front of a tall dark green hedge such as Viburnum macrophylla. The yellow flowers appear before the foliage in very early spring. Forsythia are relatively carefree. Old dead canes and crossing branches should be pruned after flowering. They are usually pest and deer resistant and thrive in our hot, humid climate. After they are established, they require little attention.
Witch Hazels are a group of small trees and shrubs that are native to North America and Asia. They prefer well-drained, loamy, acidic soil and bloom more profusely if planted in full sun. They are not as drought tolerant as Daphne or Quince, so it is best to mulch with a thick layer of loose, organic mulch such as pine bark mulch. This thick mulch will help retain the moisture they need. Witch Hazel shrubs need room to grow.
They can stretch to 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide at maturity. Selective pruning may be done to maintain a smaller size. Deer are attracted to their leaves and flowers during times of drought so keep this in mind when choosing them. There are many varieties to choose from and their sweet-scented blooms range in color from orange, yellow and red.
Witch Hazels also add beautiful fall color to the garden. ‘Arnold’s Promise’ shows off bright yellow foliage in the fall and blooms large yellow flowers in late winter to early spring. Another favorite variety that does particularly well in Zone 8 is ‘Jelena’ which has lovely orange-red flowers. ‘Jelena’ stays relatively compact with a mature height of 12 feet.
Bring the Outdoors In — Another Added Benefit
Bring the outdoors in by forcing flowering branches inside for spring color. Kill two birds with one stone by carefully selecting the branches while pruning the shrub at the same time. Prune crossing or crowded branches and bring them in for a wonderful burst of color. Place the branches in warm water and store in a cool, dimly lit area. Change the water every few days to make sure it stays clean and fresh. When the buds begin to swell, transfer the branches to a lighter and warmer spot in the house. You will be rewarded with gorgeous early blooms to brighten your house and they will truly bring the outdoors in.
Garden Chores for January and February
- On extremely cold days, turn your attention to gardening catalogs, gardening shows or visit our wonderful, local garden centers to see what’s on sale.
- It is still a good time to plant large trees and shrubs on warmer winter days. Be sure to water them.
- Sharpen and oil pruning tools because January and February are the optimal time for many types of pruning.
- On a warm day, cut out and prepare a new bed for planting in early spring.
- Redefine the borders of planting beds.
- Pull up those pesky acorns that have sprouted.
- Force flowering branches indoors to brighten up a dreary day.
- Critique your garden during the dormant month of January to assess which areas need attention.
February should be re-named rose month, for roses can be planted at this time.
- February is also the perfect time to prune roses. Cut canes at a slant and prune out old, dead canes to promote new vigorous growth.
- Cut Liriope down to the ground with a sharp mower’s blade or weed eater.
- Prune out dead and overlapping branches on trees and shrubs.
- Do not prune early spring flowering shrubs such as azaleas, Daphne, quince or forsythia.
- Continue keeping records in your garden journal of successes and failures in the garden. Record when things start to bloom to compare from year to year.
- Record which flowering bulbs and how many of each were planted.
- Enjoy the earliest of our spring flowering trees and shrubs.
- There are usually very informative garden seminars and symposiums scheduled during February. Watch for announcements.