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Winter Home Design 2003

Tuned to Winter
Radio's Plant Man picks perennials to perk up the quiet time
One of the most delicate-looking yet sturdy winter bloomers, Cyclamen hederifolium spreads freely to carpet the ground at the Miller Botanical Garden in Shoreline.
Cultivars of winter-blooming iris such as I. unguicularis 'Walter Butt' open their luminous flowers just when most of the garden goes to sleep.
I know we're supposed to appreciate the quiet months when the garden is at rest. But all those evergreens out there make me realize what a visual-change junkie I've become, dependent on my daily fix from the garden. Which is pretty tough now that it seems to have gone mostly to sleep.

This is why I crave the dynamism of winter-blooming perennials. When not much else is happening, any new leaf or flower is exciting. I've been seeking out perennials and grasses that are at their best now through February, and I've noticed that many carry a label from Northwest Perennials. Carl and Kara Elliott own and operate this wholesale nursery near Mount Vernon, so I tracked Carl down to ask him what perennials he recommends to carry the garden through the coldest months.

You may know Elliott best as "The Plant Man" from KUOW Radio, where he hangs out with Steve Sher every Wednesday morning on the popular "Weekday" show, answering questions and chatting about plants. Elliott began his radio gig eight years ago when he was garden coordinator for Seattle Tilth. Hence the organic and edible gist of the questions he so effortlessly fields every week. Since Elliott has this scholarly, scientific bent (despite a wicked sense of humor), I expected his favorite type of question to be something challenging and technical. But he says he most enjoys calls from his mother, asking what to do with her "pile of sand" garden on Camano Island.

Along with the experience of working at Seattle Tilth and a background in agriculture, Elliott has accumulated his plant knowledge by growing and selling a wide variety of perennials. Since 1997, he and his wife have run the two-acre wholesale nursery, supplying the area's retail nurseries with more than 600 different species and cultivars of perennials. You'll find him at many of the spring and fall specialty-plant sales, dispensing growing advice along with healthy and unusual plants.

Northwest Perennials has always specialized in drought-tolerant plants, and in the past couple of years the repertoire has expanded to include perennials and ornamental grasses that add architecture to the garden in all seasons. Elliott said he was "so excited about all the plants" that he had a hard time answering my questions about which perennials are at their best from now until spring. Nevertheless, it took him about two minutes to come up with a short list of winter favorites:

• Sedges, or carexes, are sturdy little grasses that look good year-round. Elliott recommends Carex 'Kiwi,' with foliage that ranges in tone from olive green to coppery, and C. morrowii 'Ice Dance,' with wider blades variegated in a clean, strong white that shows up beautifully in the filtered shade it prefers. Carex dolichostachya 'Kaga-Nishiki' looks like a little fountain of gold due to the bright golden stripe in the middle of each green leaf.

• For an even stronger architectural line, Elliott recommends Iris foetidissima 'Variegata,' whose spring flowers can't compare with the drama of its striped and spiky winter foliage. For showy flowers, look to the cultivars of the winter-blooming Iris unguicularis, which is short with relatively large and luminous flowers.

• In the past decade, hellebores have become our mainstays for winter bloom. Elliott suggests Helleborus x sternii for its handsome, purple-flushed leaves and soft-green flowers, and H. x nigercors for its large white flowers combined with toothed foliage.

• No plant is more of a surprise blooming in the frost and snow than the supremely delicate little Cyclamen coum and C. hederifolium. Beginning in December and persisting through the worst weather winter can dish out, cyclamen spread to carpet the ground with silver-marbled, heart-shaped leaves and flocks of pink butterflies of flowers clustered above the foliage.

You can find these and many more plants grown by Northwest Perennials at Seattle-area nurseries. While usually a wholesale operation, Elliott does host two open houses for the public each year; check out 2004 dates on the Web page at

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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