The Dirt -- Color my winter
I dread the end of the gardening season each year. The thought of months of gray drabness is so depressing. No flowers? Bare trees? What’s a gardener to do? Well, plenty, actually.
Mother Nature may be more subtle in the winter, but, even so, she still has lots to soothe a gardener’s soul. From basic evergreens to colorful berries and bark, interesting shapes and textures, and winter-flowering plants, there is a bounty of beauty even amidst the winter doldrums.
Let’s start with flowering plants. Camellias have to be at the top of my list because they have it all. First of all, they’re evergreen, with large glossy leaves that are attractive all year.
Secondly, they bloom over a long period. The fall blooming sasanqua varieties begin blooming in October and bloom through December. The spring japonica types begin in January and go until April.
And, thirdly, their blooms are stunning! Flowers can range from 1-inch miniatures to more than 5 inches, with a huge array of shapes and colors. Plant them in a partly shaded spot with acid soil and they’ll reward you for years to come.
Another evergreen shrub that blooms in winter is Daphne odora. This compact little shrub grows to about 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide and is available with either plain green or variegated foliage. In late winter, clusters of pink buds open into deliciously fragrant white blossoms. Plant this shrub near a walk or door to enjoy its incredible fragrance.
Other winter-blooming shrubs include leather-leaf mahonia, which bears long spiky clusters of fragrant lemon yellow flowers, and winter jasmine, a sprawling or trailing shrub with masses of pale yellow blooms.
There are some perennials that put on a good flowering show in fall and winter, too. Hellebores, also known as Lenten rose, have leathery evergreen foliage that is attractive year round, and in late winter they bear masses of flowers in colors from white, yellow and green, to pink, red and near-black. The blooms continue for months.
Heartleaf bergenia is another evergreen perennial, one whose large handsome leaves become a lovely red-bronze in winter. It produces 3- to 6-inch clusters of pretty pink blooms in late winter and early spring.
Bearded irises are best known for their huge ruffled blooms in spring, but some varieties have been bred to re-bloom in late fall. I passed a happy clump putting on a show on Route 17 just yesterday.
Some perennials are great winter interest for their foliage alone. When I first got into gardening, heucheras, or coral bells, were grown just for their blooms. Then the breeders started tinkering with their foliage. and today there are hundreds of varieties with leaves in shades of gold, pink, red, purple, silver and lime green, with names like Berry Smoothie and Sweet Tea. With foliage like this, who needs flowers?
Ferns and grasses may not immediately come to mind when thinking of the winter garden, but there are some evergreen varieties that are lovely in winter. Autumn fern and Japanese holly fern both retain their fronds all winter and are beautiful in snow. Mondo grass is a dwarf evergreen grass that is available in green or black foliage that shows well all winter.
Beautiful bark really shines in a winter garden. With foliage gone, you can really appreciate an asset that’s not so obvious the rest of the year. My favorite is the Japanese coral bark maple. Cold weather turns the green trunk and stems to a vivid coral-red. Seen against snow, it’s spectacular.
Crape myrtle is another tree that flaunts its bark in winter. Its bark naturally peels in layers each year, often resulting in dramatic mottling and stripes. The white flowering variety, Natchez, is particularly showy.
Birches are also known for their bark. River birch has papery bark that peels off in patches, giving it a rich texture, while Royal Frost birch has smooth silvery white bark.
Contorted filbert, also known as Harry Lauder’s walking stick, is in a class by itself when it comes to the winter garden. Every branch and twig of this plant is a mass of loops, curls and twists. When its leaves come off, its stems are exposed in all their bizarre glory.
Berries are another source of winter color in the garden. Evergreen hollies are well known for their bright red berries and have a strong association with the Christmas season. Deciduous hollies, like the winterberry, take it one step further by dropping their leaves and putting their berries front and center.
Pyracantha, or firethorn, is another great plant for colorful winter berries, producing masses of bright orange-red fruit to brighten the winter days.
So don’t despair as winter sets in. The garden may be going to sleep, but Mother Nature still has some special treats in store!
Ginger Hogan is a Delaware Certified Nursery Professional. Do you have questions you’d like to have answered in a future column? Send them to Ginger at firstname.lastname@example.org.