Winter Garden

Witchhazels along path

The Witt Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle is one of my favorite places to visit in late January and February. The plant collection features early-blooming shrubs, many of which are fragrant. On a nice afternoon when the sun is low in the sky the light radiates through the massed Witchhazels and the sweet scent of Sarcococca and Hamamelis fills the air.

Cyclamen coum

Of course, not everything that’s blooming is a shrub. This patch of hardy cyclamen, Cyclamen coum, blooms reliably at the base of a Stewartia monadelpha every winter. I think I’ve been photographing it since 1998. Something about it keeps bringing me back, even though the patch hasn’t changed much over the years, just slowly getting bigger.

This is a great plant for the winter garden. It self-seeds without being invasive. I’ve seen it carpeting a lawn near Medford. In the summer it goes dormant, disappearing completely until the foliage re-emerges in late autumn. Plant it together with the fall-blooming cyclamen, C. hederifolium, for a longer season of bloom and contrasting foliage textures.

SnowdropsSnowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, were always the first bulb to bloom in my father’s garden when I was growing up in West Virginia. They’re another plant that will slowly spread and colonize an area, lighting it up with their delicate pendant blossoms.

Here they’re naturalizing among fallen leaves in the woodland edge of the winter garden. I’ve planted a couple of small clumps in our garden in Bellingham, but ours haven’t started blooming yet. They’re a good choice under dedicuous trees because they come up early, bloom, and then the foliage dies back before the trees get leafed out very far.

Serious Galanthophiles go crazy over dozens of named varieties with subtle differences in the shape of the petals, some with shades of green on the tips. Personally I’m just happy to see them come into bloom, signifying the beginning of our long spring season. Can it really still be winter when the spring bulbs start blooming?

Stinking HelleboresLooping back around to where we entered the garden, these Stinking Hellebores, Helleborus foetidus, are blooming as a groundcover underneath the Witchhazels.

I can’t say that I’ve ever actually stuck my nose deep into a Stinking Hellebore blossom to find out if they really smell bad, but I haven’t noticed a foul odor from normal working distances. Not even from way up close shoving a wide angle lens in their faces like in this photo.

What I really like about this Hellebore is the red tinge on the edge of the green petals which creates a nice bicolor effect. The deeply incised foliage looks good year-around, too. The flowers will last for at least a couple of months.

These photos were made on January 25. There was a little sun peeking through the conifers surrounding the garden when I arrived, but by the time I finished working it had sunk behind the trees. I shot with my 70-200mm lens to start and then switched to the 16-35mm. From the ridiculous to the sublime I sometimes tell people. When working with the long lens on my fairly lightweight carbon fiber tripod I almost always hang my camera pack to add additional mass and dampen the vibrations from the mirror flipping up and down. I’ve learned from experience that if I don’t do that then I don’t get reliably sharp photos. I keep a climbing carabiner on the haul loop of my pack and clip it to a ring on the tripod that was designed for a carrying strap.

Even when working with the very short 16-35mm lens I usually put it on the tripod. I like to be able to precisely control the composition. It also makes it easy to look for distracting elements, like dead foliage, and remove it before making an exposure. Gardening is a lot easier in front of the lens than in Photoshop later.

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3 thoughts on “Winter Garden

  1. Beautiful pictures and wonderfully insightful tips, Mark. Like you, the Winter Garden is an oasis of hope and soulfulness each year. It makes January and February important garden months.

    Call sometime when you’re down and we’ll grab a bowl of Pho of some such for lunch.

  2. Thanks, David. I think all of we gardeners could draw a little inspiration from the Arboretum’s winter garden. Texture, scent, and color combine to welcome the slowly lengthening days.

    I hope the room is packed for your program at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show on Wednesday. And yes, we’ll have to get together for lunch sometime.

  3. Nice post, Mark. It’s my favorite winter garden and I’ve photographed it many times when in Seattle for the flower show. I haven’t been up in a few years, so it’s nice to see your images.