WUSSY-ASS GARDENERS stay inside all winter and water their houseplants. That's not my style. I like to be out in the elements, trowel slung manfully over my shoulder, the wind and rain beating against my face. I'm ready to get my hands dirty. And lucky for me, my backyard has gone completely untouched by any human hand for nearly two years. So this winter is my time to push gardening to the edge, to test my limits, to scale the sheer rockery wall next to my patio and feel the burn in my abs. I consulted a couple of local gardening experts—Debra Anderson of City People's on Capitol Hill, and Jean Van Hollebeke, nursery manager at Swanson's in Ballard—for their suggestions on taming the wilds behind my rental house.
Seattle Weekly: Just how dangerous is it to be gardening during the wintertime?
Jean Van Hollebeke: Gardening is possible all year long. We have fairly mild temperatures, and the ground is warmer than the air. As long as the ground is 40 degrees—which it is about 360 days out of the year—roots can grow. Planting things in fall and winter is actually great for plants. It would be an excellent time to lay down the bones of your garden, if you're starting from scratch, with trees and shrubs.
I've got a lot of energy. Where do I start?
Debra Anderson: There's just a ton of things you can do. You can put down a cover crop, which is a kind of seed that will just keep the ground from attracting weed seeds, and then you turn that over in the spring and it becomes a kind of compost to enrich the soil.
Does that require any power tools or nighttime work?
Anderson: No, it's very simple. As long as your bed is there, all you have to do is kind of till it up and make sure there are no existing weeds in it, then just put down a cover-crop seed. Fava beans, crimson clover, Austrian field peas, rye/vetch—those are four that we sell. It's not hugely time-consuming. If you're dealing with an empty bed . . . it'll take you an hour maximum. It's really not a huge process.
Then what do I do? Just let it sit? There's nothing to do on weekends?
Anderson: That's just if you're going to leave your bed without planting anything. Now is a great time to be planting perennials. You can plant evergreen trees and shrubs right now.
And do those need a lot of work, a lot of upkeep?
Anderson: No, that's why it's a good time to plant them, because of the oncoming moisture. Generally when you transplant plants in the spring and summer, you have to make sure they have enough water on a real regular basis.
Van Hollebeke: You can take advantage of plants that have brightly colored foliage. You can also choose some that are colorful for berries and that are a good haven for birds in the yard. That can make wintertime a lot more fun around here, to watch the changing wildlife.
What about the actual, sort of, work that these kinds of things require?
Van Hollebeke: There are some trees that it's really nice to prune in the wintertime because it allows you to really see the structure. For the holidays, it's really fun to have thematic decorations. You can do all kinds of crazy things. You can take prunings from trees and learn how to make them into baskets. You can do little fences with apple prunings, make a little border fence.
Is there anything else? Can I grow my own food?
Anderson: There are some winter-hardy vegetables you can be planting right now—you can plant kale or cabbage, garlic, broccoli, mustard, chard; there's some lettuce that will go until frost. You can plant any type of tulips, crocus, daffodils; any kind of bulb right now.
What type of heavy labor does that require?
Anderson: Not much, just checking up on it.
I want to try something new, something extreme.
Anderson: The last five years, people have really been getting excited about helleborus. It's an early, early spring, late winter blooming plant. And they bloom anywhere from lime green to apple blossom pink; there are some yellow ones, white, apricot, black. You can plant them now. They usually start showing up in bigger quantity throughout the winter. Usually around Christmas, you're able to find some really nice helleborus for sale.