Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Winter Garden

I’ve been busy as of late and haven’t had the time to make a proper gardening post.  Reading, drooling over pictures in catalogs, and longing for spring are the few gardening related activities there’s time for.  One post in particular was lurking in the back of my mind and I’ve finally had time to work on it.  Winter this season has been something of a dud, once again.  Central Massachusetts has experienced mostly mild temperatures and only three snow events with over a couple inches of snow (and even snow amounts have varied based upon location).  This means that visiting gardens in December or January are actually somewhat pleasant experiences as opposed to arduous trials that end in frost bite and teams of rescuers (I kid, I’ve never needed a team of rescuers—although a Saint Bernard with a cask of brandy is always a welcome sight).  The winter garden is an interesting place at a time when plants display other characteristics.  One should plan a garden and think of the winter landscape as well as the summer height of color.

Some plants are valuable for the leaves they hold on to through the winter, others for interesting bark.  Still others hold onto their fruit well into the depths of winter until birds finally get around to them.  Shrubs and perennials may provide interesting seed pods or spent flower heads.  Each option is a valuable addition to any garden and the plants I review below work well throughout most of New England and points south with only one or two having more delicate sensibilities in especially cold weather.

Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Scarletta’ is a fairly common evergreen used for interest year round.  It has white flowers in the spring and acts as an excellent ground cover in shaded spots or areas with mixed light.  The winter colors and textures however, are especially important for the gardener.  New growth is reddish in color and fall/winter leaf color is a deep, reddish purple.  Protection from winter winds is required and plants generally won’t tolerate a full sun exposure (although your mileage may vary).    It can spread when stems root into the ground and may need to be kept in check by occasional digging out.

Another useful evergreen is Microbiota decussata.  Although it looks similar to many junipers, the foliage is soft and the plant tolerates a wider range of conditions.  It does best in somewhat shaded spots, although I’ve also seen it planted in full sun.  The green foliage looks fantastic during the growing season, but in the fall the color changes to a mix of bronze and tan.  To me, mass plantings look like a giant, sleeping muppet just waiting to rise up.  When I first encountered this plant I wasn’t so sure about it, but seeing it planted in drifts make it quite impressive, especially in winter.

New England is home to a fantastic creeping groundcover that tolerates all kinds of conditions, looks great in the winter, and has a fantastic name; Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  Also known as “Kinnikinnik” or “Bear Berry” this low lying evergreen plant produces white or light pink flowers in spring, offers up red cranberry like fruit in summer, and turns varying shades of reddish purple during the winter.  Given the kind of winter we’ve had, the plants in this picture aren’t in their most interesting color range.  I’ve seen this plant growing near the Quabbin Reservoir, scampering along rocky cliff faces and basically growing where nothing else would make an attempt.  The winter color on these plants tends to be deep reddish purple.   If you’re looking for an especially tough ground cover, one with winter interest,  give Bear Berry a try.

Speaking of berries, some fruiting plants will hold onto fruit for a lengthy period during the colder months.  Eventually, birds or other animals will get to them, but while they last they’re an excellent addition to the winter garden.  Take “Winterberry” for example, or Ilex verticillata.  This is a native, deciduous holly that has a range of berry colors from deep red to orange to yellow or even white.  It does prefer moist soil and to get berries you’ll need both male and female plants in fairly close proximity.  Given the right conditions, however, it is a spectacular plant in the winter.  The variety in the picture is a variety known as ‘Winter Gold’ and has yellow berries.

Viburnums also hold onto their fruit and the one in the picture was practically glowing when I came across it.  It is a ‘Linden Viburnum’ or Viburnum dilitatum ‘Asian Beauty.’  This Viburnum originally hails from China and Japan and will tolerate sun or light shade.  It eventually turns into a fairly large shrub, reaching heights of 10 or 12 feet, but has a more upright growth habit than some other Viburnums.  The flowers are white and the fruit is varying shades of red.  A native substitute would be Viburnum trilobum, or the’ American Cranberry Viburnum.’

If you’re looking for interesting bark and textures, the Oak Leaved Hydrangea or Hydrangea quercifolia is an excellent choice.  It is a native shrub and does best in mixed light, although more direct sunlight will produce stronger fall foliage colors.  The white flowers are fantastic during summer, the large green leaves look somewhat prehistoric, and in winter it’s possible to view the peeling bark.  It is hardy into zone 5, although some cultivars seem to be less hardy than others.  It tends to form colonies and will, over time, form a fairly dense shrub.

So, these are some great shrubs to consider for the winter garden.  My next post will cover perennials.  All of these plants are readily available at garden centers and none of them are especially difficult to grow.  I promise to be better about posting, as well; perhaps I should have that Saint Bernard rescue me from responsibilities occasionally. 

Recommended Plant: 
Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’ or Dwarf Redosier Dogwood.  I’d never seen this cultivar previously, but found it happily growing near the parking lot and entrance to Tower Hill Botanic Gardens.  The small red stems looked great and it was looking like a small forest.  Like other shrub dogwoods it is especially hardy although it does need soil more on the moist side.  It may also require some roping in, as shrub dogwoods tend to grow somewhat exuberantly if conditions are right and will spread their stems outward in colonies.  I expect it would look great next to a flagstone walkway, where the red stems would show up especially well near the stone.