Garden Seasons

  • By Debra Smith / Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, February 22, 2006 9:00pm
  • Life

C ome February, most gardeners are huddled inside and their yards are a depressing mass of matted dead leaves and bare brown twigs.

Bob Barca’s Whidbey Island garden is proof it doesn’t have to be that way.

Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

Bob Barca’s Whidbey Island garden has three composting bins.

Walk through the retired professor’s garden this time of year and hear the szzzzz of hummingbirds zipping about, the twitter of a bird from above, the burble of water.

Delicate yellow blooms tip the edges of one tree, another sports curls of peeling cinnamon-colored bark. Blooms abound – some showy, some so delicate you lean in for a closer view.

Barca, a Snohomish County master gardener and popular garden club lecturer, is experienced. But creating a landscape that’s beautiful all four seasons isn’t out of reach for ordinary folks. It’s all about finding the right plants.

Bob Barca’s favorite plants for fall and winter interest.

Paper bark maple (Acer griseum): Fall color and cinnamon red peeling bark.

Stewartia monodelpha: Summer flowers, fall color and flaking bark.

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo): Evergreen shrub with fall flowers, red fruit and nice bark.

White-barked Himalayan birch (Betula jacquemontii): Gorgeous shiny white bark makes a winter focal point.

Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas): February or March flowers signal the end of the winter and are followed by showy red fruit.

Oregon grape holly (Mahonia ‘Lionel Fortescue,’ ‘Charity’ and ‘Winter Sun’): This evergreen shrub with blue fruit attracts the Anna Hummingbird.

Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica): Evergreen shrub with tropical-like leaves and winter flower spike.

Flowering cherry (Prunes x subhirtella x yeodoensis ‘Hally Jolivette’) grafted on serrula bark. This compact flowering cherry flowers from before winter through early spring. The serrula bark is a beautiful glossy mahogany.

Henry Lauder’s walkingstick or also called corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’): Shrub with gnarled and twisted branches and twigs.

Grevillea victoriae: Evergreen shrub with red flowers during fall and winter. Needs good sun and excellent drainage.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorium): Yellow flowers in the fall and the beginning of winter. Tie to a trellis or let it trail; not fragrant.

Hellebore (Helloborus foetidus) Long winter-blooming perennial with attractive foliage.

Japanese variegated sedge (Carex morrowii ‘Varigata’): Low-growing with white and green striped leaves; highlights empty winter beds.

Pheasant’s tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana): Low-growing with coppery tinge in fall and winter.

Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima): Low-growing with interesting form.

Barca’s quest for winter-interest plants began 25 years ago when he and wife Annette bought their home on Whidbey. Then it was a weekend getaway covered with salal, trees, honeysuckle and not much else.

As Barca, now 65, began developing a garden, he became frustrated with the lack of interesting plants during the colder months.

“I thought it was a shame to not enjoy your garden in the winter too.”

He researched plants and began collecting those that could provide blooms, berries, beautiful bark or interesting forms for his garden – the elements that make plants visually interesting in fall and winter. It was no easy task. It’s only recently that mainstream nurseries have stocked a variety of plants with these qualities, Barca said.

He discovered it makes better sense to choose plants that will give you pleasure two or three seasons out of the year, rather than one. And gardeners will have a much easier time if they don’t limit themselves to a narrow plant palette.

Planning a garden for all seasons is about learning that flowers are only part of what makes a plant interesting, he said. There are plants that bloom during winter, but gardeners also must cultivate an appreciation for subtle forms of beauty. The crooked, corkscrewing branches of the shrub Henry Lauder’s walkingstick, for instance, give the garden in winter a mythical feel, as if a wizened gnome wandered in.

Barca’s garden today is divided into a series of outdoor rooms, full of secret nooks with wooden chairs and tinkling rustic water fountains. These features lend year-round appeal, but the incredible variety of plants he grows is the showstopper.

Diversity is almost an understatement in Barca’s garden. Visitors can spot a little of everything, including bog plants, cacti, ornamental grasses, native plants, flowering trees, many evergreen shrubs, a few tropicals, and Northwest standards such as roses, hydrangeas and rhododendrons.

“I’d never be a specialist, because there are too many interesting plants,” he said.

He favors ornamental shrubs and trees. And he tends many plants from the Mediterranean region and Australia. That’s unusual because until recently most plant people believed these were too tender to survive during the winter here.

It’s possible to grow many of these plants, even those outside recommended zones, by providing full sun, good drainage and some cover from rain. It’s not the cold that kills many of these plants as much as the wet, Barca said.

To provide good drainage, he digs a hole for his tender Mediterranean and Australian plants and fills it with a mix of native soil, builder’s sand and gravel. These plants also do well in raised beds, 18- to 24-inches tall. To give these plants some cover, he’ll plant them under his home’s eaves.

The benefits of growing a variety of plants include the birds, butterflies and beneficial insects he attracts to his property. This winter Barca has documented about a dozen hummingbirds that frequent his garden.

Adding art to the garden is another way to create year-round interest. Barca is the master of developing his own water features cheaply. He built about a dozen fountains using items such as an old pipe and wine barrel, milk can, washing tub and vintage metal heater.

He uses virtually the same technique for building his water features. He digs a hole and places a plastic container or pond liner in a frame inside. With the vintage heater, for instance, he ran a pipe down the back of the heater and into the hole. A screen covers the hole and a layer of gravel hides the screen. A pump attached to the bottom of the pipe circulates the water. The most expensive part of the project is the pump, which costs as little as $25.

In addition to the pleasant sound of water splashing and bubbling, the fountains provide a pleasant place for eyes to wander.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or

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