Garden Muse
by:  JIM CLARK, The hardy yucca can inject a gray winter with some evergreen color.

I love celebrating the winter solstice - it means the days start to get longer, and there will be more time to garden.

A few weeks ago, a group of women friends and I turned a bleak winter night into an evening of joy by creating a solstice party.

We decorated the tables with fragrant sprigs of rosemary, and branches of spruce, holly and pine from our gardens.

We feasted on the good earth's bounty - kale salad, roasted beets, winter squash casserole and steaming apple cider.

We read poems about winter, and stories about the meaning of nature's cycles. Then each of us lit a white candle and said a word or two about what winter means.

Cold, dark, mittens, naked trees, icicles, baking, antifreeze, fire in the fireplace, wet leaves, baking and skiing all were mentioned. Afterward we spoke of our hopes and dreams for the year to come. For quite a few, there were longings to spend more time in our gardens, to grow more flowers and vegetables.

It's rough for a gardener to get through winter, to lose that connection with blossoms and soil, with buds and scented leaves. It's a little embarrassing to admit, but I even miss weeding and slug hunting.

Desperate for a flower fix, I cruise the cut-flower display at the market, inhaling the fresh scent of white chrysanthemums and the sweet perfume of yellow freesias.

I consider buying some, but I remember my stepmother Celia's aversion to cut flowers, because they die so soon. I eye the flowering cyclamen in their pots, and the living rosemary wreaths growing in containers, but I leave empty-handed.

Back home I poke around under the hellebore leaves in my garden looking for buds - they're down there, but closed tight against the cold. No sign of sweet box opening its white buds, either.

Winter is a waiting time. But I'm running out of patience.

Sitting in my home office, I gaze at the darkest month's page on the wall calendar. Georgia O'Keeffe's larger-than-life size pink petunias dance against a green background, radiating warm color.

Many more flowers bloom on postcards and greeting cards pushpinned to the opposite wall: voluptuous pink peonies and roses, bronze and lavender bearded iris, pastel pink lilies and satin white magnolias.

If it weren't so windy and rainy out, I'd drive over to Cistus Nursery on Sauvie Island to see its borders rich with evergreen eucalyptus and Japanese incense cedar, and hopefully some winter bloom. But I'm warm and cozy indoors, so I call the nursery instead.

'What's blooming in your garden?' I ask. Jim Mecca tromps around in the rain and reports on his cell phone. Mahonia x media 'Underway' and 'Winter Sun' are both in bloom, way ahead of my 'Arthur Menzies,' who still refuses to open his buds.

'The eucalyptus foliage and bark look great against the overcast sky,' Mecca says. He's partial to the snow gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora) for its green, gray and cream bark and blue-green leaves, and candlebark (Eucalyptus rubida) with mahogany stems.

The Japanese incense cedars also are looking great.

'They're turning that bizarre purple brown,' Mecca says. He's referring to the winter tints of Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans.' Novice gardeners have been fooled into thinking their tree was dead, but the color change is just a response to cold weather. Come spring, the foliage takes on lively green tints.

I finally go out and take a walk in the neighborhood, enjoying the dark green sweeping branches of sequoia, and the blue atlas cedars. One neighbor's mass planting of Japanese aralia is still blooming with big, white, ball-shaped flowers, and at the library the variegated periwinkle is shiny with raindrops.

But it's just not enough. I get in the car and go back to the store. I buy three bouquets of flowers - a big bunch of purple irises, a mixed bouquet of white chrysanthemums, blue-green eucalyptus and red-berried St. John's Wort, and the biggest arrangement of mixed alstroemeria, in tints of peach, red and pink.

I simply must have my flowers in this gray season, even if they die next week. Now I can breathe again, and get through winter, at least until the hellebores begin to bloom.

Garden events

• Horticulture magazine and the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon present Down to Earth Gardening: Gardening Smarter, Problem Solving and Going Green With the Best New Plants, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 27, Portland State University. Keynote speakers include Helen Dillon and David Howard. Tickets $134, Horticulture subscribers and HPSO members $124. To register or for information, visit, or call 1-877-436-7764.

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