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Posted by on Nov 30, 2012 | 2 comments

Winter Planting As an Act of Faith

Winter Planting As an Act of Faith

Would you plant this?


I should rephrase that. Would you buy it and then plant it? My neighbor Elin did with the absolute faith and certainty that the plant will emerge in the spring healthy and green and beautiful. Her trust comes from knowing that the nursery where she purchased the plant is Nature by Design, a terrific native plant nursery tucked away off of Calvert Street in Del Ray.


The owners really know their stuff and they’ll go to great lengths to educate customers about native plant choices. In a nutshell, native plants are desirable because they meet the needs, including food and cover, of native wildlife without causing long-term damage to local plant communities. When I wanted to find butterfly and bee attracting plants that are shade-loving and native, they emailed me a long list of options.


When you buy plants in the late fall, early winter, like us, you’re rushing to get something in the ground before the first frost. So, you buy something that looks half dead, and imagine in your mind, the splendid specimen you’ll see during the growing season.

Many of the plants are dormant, the leaves and flowers have dried up, turned brown, or fallen off, or the nursery staff has pruned the plant back, but the roots are moist and healthy. This way, the plants are conserving their foliage and flower development in favor of root growth. The plant will produce blooms of new growth in the spring.

These past few weeks the nursery is blanketed in maple leaves, so you have to do little hand raking to get to what’s underneath. Luckily, the plants for sale are well labeled.


On my plant-shopping excursion with Elin, I bought two ferns that actually look like ferns now.


I also bought two climbing vines. One will grow up and cover the unsightly white gutter extension I rigged up to drain into the rain barrel when I moved the barrel farther away from the house.


The vine is called the Carolina Red-Berried Moonseed (Cocculus carolina). Next year at this time, it will have juicy red berries.

red-berry snailseed

And since we have a certified backyard habitat, we now have another food source for many types of berry-loving birds, such as mockingbirds, cardinals, and white-throated sparrows.

The other, that sorry-looking brown plant near the fence, will grow up the metal trellis near the bird bath. (I choose to believe it will — the reward is just too great!)


This native climbing vine, Clematis virginiana, is from the buttercup family and will produce profuse white clusters of small white flowers.


I picked a wild red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) for the shade garden too. This native beauty is also in the buttercup family. The tubes have nectar  that attracts long-tongued insects and hummingbirds, so I fully expect my back patio to be teaming with insects (plus a few mosquitoes I’m sure) and birds next summer!


Finally, I couldn’t resist picking a few of the wild leeks, also know as ramps (Allium tricoccum), members of the lily family.


They’ll make their appearance in early spring and as their name suggests and taste like mild onions or leeks. The bulbs and foliage can be used in soups and salads.


I didn’t know this, but there are “ramp festivals” held in regions where the plants are plentiful in spring. In late May, in the highlands of southwest Virginia,  the annual Whitetop Mountain Ramp Festival includes music performed by local players‚ crafts‚ games‚ mountain dancing‚ a ramp eating contest‚ and barbecued chicken flavored with ramps. May be worth a road trip, or perhaps I’ll have my own small backyard festival.

Nature by Design is open through December 23. After January 7, they’ll be open by appointment as weather permits. Get there while the getting’s good!

For more about this small, independently run nursery, read this article by Dana, a columnist for the Del Ray Patch.


  1. When is the best time to prune flowering shrubs? And what is the right time to plant a fruit tree?

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