Pacific Northwest | November 9, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 9, home
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Winter Break
Maybe this time we'll get nature's help in clearing our gardens
A dusting of slushy snow on flowers, like here in March of 2002, was a rare thing in the benign winters of recent years. But this year we may be in for more snow and blasts of cold, according to one local expert.
THIS MAY WELL be the winter that freezes back the overgrown phormium, potato vines and hebes. Remember when all these plants — along with Melianthus major, pelargoniums and lemon verbena — died back to the ground over the winter, and often were killed outright by freezing temperatures? Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, describes our past few winters as "benign," which means little snow or heavy winds, with hardly even a touch of frost.

Newcomers to Seattle seem to think they can grow near tropicals outdoors, and who can blame them? Recent winters have only encouraged the cannas and bananas. I feel like a crusty old farmer when I explain that I remember winters when we had deep freezes before Thanksgiving and nighttime temperatures in the single digits in February. I lost an established escallonia hedge to a severe freeze in the early '80s. New gardeners don't believe me, or even if they do, where's the relevance as gingers and abutilons crowd the borders? But it sounds like we may have more serious winter weather in store.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Viburnum tinus, often called laurustinus, is one of the few evergreen shrubs that begins to bloom in November. The flat flower heads in shades of white through pink are sweetly fragrant, displayed against deep green leaves on a dense shrub ideal for hedging. Shiny, blue-black berries make it a good choice for a hedgerow planting where it will attract birds to nest and to dine. The foliage of V. tinus 'Variegatum' is margined in yellow; 'Eve Price' has light-pink flowers and long, narrow leaves.
Mass explains that this winter will be a neutral one, meaning that it will be neither an El Niño nor a La Niña year. This means, in a scientist's cautious words, "There will be a significant chance for less benign weather." The past few winters have been El Niño years, which tend to be warmer, with less snow and fewer storms. Neutral years are hit with the big floods, snowstorms and windstorms. Remember the last big snowstorm we had that blew in right after Christmas of '96, and melted into floods before New Year's? That was also a neutral-weather year. "We tend to get a few cold outbreaks in neutral years," says Mass. "There are no guarantees, but it is better than speculation."

I have to admit that the prospect of an Arctic blast or two delights me. I can't tell you how many gardeners have lamented lately over how crowded their gardens have become with plants growing far larger than expected. It is hard to know when to cut back all these plants grown huge and lanky, for we've depended on winter weather to do it for us. Given that endlessly expanding plant palette we've indulged in recently, a dose of reality wouldn't be such a bad thing. I found myself explaining recently to an Alaska-to-Seattle transplant that gardeners here need to worry more about dahlias rotting over the winter than about the ground freezing deeply enough to kill the tubers. We used to think we needed to dig dahlias and store them indoors over the winter. Now they survive outdoors in pots.

I plan to resist the temptation to wrap the pink-striped Phormium 'Sundowner' to protect it from the cold. I planted it too close to the patio a few years ago, never expecting it to keep on growing year 'round to a height of at least 6 feet — and just as wide. I'm not going to move the pot of pitcher plants into the garage as I did for several years until I realized they wintered over just fine on the patio.

I look forward to winter weather culling the garden, cutting back those plants I've been too tender-hearted (or ignorant) to deal with effectively. I long to see a real snowfall coating the trees, and to get out there with a rake and shake snowflakes off the bamboo. Wouldn't it be satisfying come March to feel like we've really had a winter? And to see a little bare ground, all the better to add a few new plants? I told Mass that his prediction of more interesting winter weather was exciting, because I've been bored by all that benign stuff. He replied dryly, "How do you think meteorologists feel?"

And since we're looking ahead, "The Old Farmer's Almanac" (which claims an 80 percent accuracy rate on its weather forecasting) predicts that the summer of 2004 will be wet and cool throughout the Northwest. Maybe we're getting back to a more normal weather pattern in all seasons.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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