Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gardening: So what’s in your garden now? Winter interest is key.

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. – William Blake

Teasel in winter. Photo: Howard Dickins, Flickr ccl
So on the East Coast of Canada, and Northeastern US, this is the season of hope. The snow has passed in almost all places. In Halifax, crocus and eranthus are already up and blooming. Hyacinths, daffodils and tulips have pushed through the ground and are showing their leaves, but still have weeks to go before bloom.

This is the time to take stock of the “bones” of your garden. How did it fare over the winter months? Did you have enough off-season interest to make your garden a pleasure through the cold weather months?

Left: Juggling Mom; right: things pondered; Flickr ccl
“Bones” refers to both built structures and plants that, either because of branches or leaves/needles, make your garden interesting when nothing tender is growing. For example, red twigged dogwood or blue spruce add colour to a wintery landscape when there’s little other colour to be seen (besides white and gray).

But it's not just trees and bushes that can add interest through winter. There are perennials (and biennials) that structurally last through the snow as well. 

Simply put, a perennial is a plant that lives through the winter and re-grows from the existing base of last year’s plant. They spreads through seeds or spreading roots. 

A biennial is a plant that will seed and form a low flat rosette of leaves the first year, and bloom the second, thus seeding and repeating the cycle. After blooming the parent plant dies. It will not come back the next year.

Photo: Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden, Flickr ccl
Annuals (like their name) are usually planted when all chance of frost has passed. They flower, seed and die all in one year. If you want more the next year you must collect and store the seeds. Most ornamental annuals do not have seeds that can last through the cold of winter, but some do. Those are referred to as “self-seeding” annuals.

One of the more interesting biennials is Teasel (or Dipsacus). Teasel can grow between 3-6’ tall and are native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Teasel can usually be purchased (either in plant or seed) in two main forms: Fuller’s teasel, or common teasel. Common teasel has smaller flower heads. The spiny, dry heads of the larger Fuller’s teasel have been used since Roman times to raise the nap of woolen fabrics in a process known as “fulling” (thus the name). 

We were given some teasels last summer from a friend and they settled in perfectly. The dead flower stocks also stood through a winter where we received our fair share of snow. The good thing about being a biennial is you can, if they do pop up in an undesirable spot, just dig them up and relocate to a better location.

Photo: raysto, Flickr ccl
Teasels are easily identified by their prickly stem and cupped leaves that hold water when it rains. They have small purple/pink or lavender blooms that form on the flower structure. The first blooms begin opening in a belt around the middle and then bloom from there up and down the rest of the head. The dried heads are great for flower arrangements, or if you leave them in the garden add a great deal of interest through the snowy months.

The seeds are a food resource for some birds, notably the European Goldfinch. Teasels are often grown in gardens and some nature reserves to attract them.

One word of caution, teasel is considered an invasive species in the United States. It can, if allowed, crowd out native plant species. Therefore it is discouraged and/or eliminated in conservation areas.

If you want something unusual that has winter garden presence, try teasels.


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