Liven those unsightly brown spots

As I look out my window, all I see in the flower beds is dull, brown soil with a few sticks poking up. It would be nice to have some color there year-round, and I know it is possible to extend the fall a bit and to anticipate spring to fill the gap with some careful planning.

When the calendar pages turn over to a new year, the gardener is a bit out of synch. It is more like the protracted ending of the old year, with winter hanging on, but there are a few plants that will grow at this time.

One thing that makes the flower beds more attractive through the winter is a good layer of mulch. As well as being easier on the eye, mulch will protect perennials and small shrubs from the heaving of the ground that is caused by alternate freezing and thawing.

I have a large hyacinth bulb with some nice green shoots on the ground by the front door, and I need to get out there with a trowel and pop it back into the ground where it belongs. Snow is nature’s mulch, but unless we have a covering from November to March, it is unreliable. A natural material is a safer way to go.

The best mulch is an organic substance with an open texture that lets air and water permeate through, such as shredded bark, hay, straw, pine needles, discarded Christmas greens, my favorite cocoa shells, or even leaves.

This winter, mulch should not be applied until the soil is well frozen, which usually does not happen until December. If you have some around now, it is not too late to spread it around to bridge the gap until mid-March, when things will have warmed and green shoots will find a more hospitable welcome.

The snow has been sporadic so far this year, with no great accumulation at one time, at least as I write this in mid-February. A reminder may be timely; never shovel snow from the street or sidewalk onto flower beds or lawns where any chemicals used for ice melting may harm spring growth if they seep into the soil.

A number of small bulbs will flower in late February if weather conditions are favorable, including snowdrops, scylla, chionodoxas and even crocus. These small bulbs do best in a somewhat shady and protected spot and will last for many years.

Hellebores, with Christmas rose (helleborus niger) the best-known variety, also are long-lived. For that reason, they should be planted in a carefully chosen spot from which they will not need to be moved. They do best in humus-rich soil under shrubs or trees, and will produce their bowl-shaped white flowers in mid-winter.

Another sure bet for winter is the witch hazel.

This shrub will produce its spicy fragrant yellow flowers generally in February and protects itself by curling the petals into a tight ball in extreme cold.

Plant this one by a window where you can get the best view without having to go out and brave the cold.

These are some suggestions I would do well to set a good example by carrying out myself. Maybe for next year.

Janet Del Turco is a local gardener and a graduate of the Ohio State University Master Gardener program. Contact her at