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Originally published Wednesday, December 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Talk

Plants that bring fragrance to a winter porch

Q: What is winter jasmine? I've been told to plant it by my front door for fragrance this time of year. A: Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum...

Special to The Seattle Times

Q: What is winter jasmine? I've been told to plant it by my front door for fragrance this time of year.

A: Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) has cheery yellow flowers, but it lacks the sweet scent you expect from a jasmine. It begins to bloom as early as late November and continues to flower through March, with plentiful flowers along stiff, bare stems. Its arching slender shape works well espaliered against a wall or trained along a fence. So by all means, plant some winter jasmine by your front door, where it'll brighten the scene. Just don't expect it to please your nose. For fragrance this time of year, nothing beats species of sarcococca, glossy evergreen shrubs with tiny white flowers that smell strongly and sweetly of vanilla; Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) or its cultivars; or pink-flowering Viburnum bodnantense. Oddly, some plants are just more fragrant than others, so now when these plants are in bloom is a great time to choose the ones that smell best to you.

Q: I've loved lavender since I visited a beautiful lavender farm on San Juan Island a few years ago. But mine is struggling. Is this the time to cut it back? The bushes are ratty looking, and I'd like to shear them down.

A: Lavender is a Mediterranean plant that loves sun and drought, so now, when it's stressed by wet and cold, is definitely not the time to cut it back. You can tidy up the lanky stragglers if you'd like, but don't cut into the woody part of the plant.

Ideally, you would have snipped back the wands of blossoms after the flowers faded in early autumn. Then in March, when the weather begins to warm up, you can cut out dead parts and shape the plant, but lavender resents being cut back too severely.

If your lavender is languishing, chances are it isn't getting enough sun or adequate drainage. Lavender does best planted in quick-draining soil where it gets six to eight hours of sun a day. The only spots where I've been able to grow really healthy lavender is in sandy soil or raised beds.

Q: What should I plant to feed birds during the winter months? I'd like to attract birds to my garden, but want to do it with plants instead of bird feeders, which attract rats as much as birds.

A: Birds appreciate winter sustenance, and this is an ideal time for bird watching in our gardens. In winter, songbirds gather in mixed flocks, birds cover more territory in search of food and all are easier to see when the leaves are off the trees. Messy gardens attract birds, so leave old perennials standing and seed heads on grasses during the winter months. The seeds of coneflowers, asters, globe thistles and rudbeckia are all beloved by birds, as are rose hips and berried plants such as Oregon grape, elderberry, skimmia and cotoneaster.

Remember that gardening practices and design are as important for bird-friendly gardens as are specific plants. An organic garden is healthy for birds as well as humans, so avoid all pesticides and herbicides. Birds need fresh, unfrozen water, and they love to shelter and gather in thickets of plants. Leave an old snag behind if a tree dies, because birds love to dine on the insects that live in dead wood. Be sure to add native plants to the mix; they've evolved for millennia along with the birds, so they serve them well in ways we can't even anticipate. For advice as well as lengthy lists of bird-attracting plants, see "Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest" by Russell Link (University of Washington Press, 1999).

Valerie Easton also writes about Plant Life in Sunday's Pacific Northwest Magazine. Write to her at P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or e-mail planttalk@seattletimes.com with your questions. Sorry, no personal replies.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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