Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
September, 2004
Regional Report

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Native winterberry brightens winter with its colorful berries. Besides the traditional red, there also are varieties with yellow or orange berries.

Window Wonderland

"You don't have to go outdoors to enjoy a colorful winter garden. In fact, it is good landscaping to lay out your garden so that it offers pleasing pictures from the windows of the rooms you use most.... Winter window views of your garden become most effective when you select interesting plants and then arrange them to play up contrasts of light and dark, the components of structure and pattern, with the tang of color accents against a bold, or at least definite, background."

These opening words from Helen Van Pelt Wilson in her 1978 book Color for Your Winter Yard & Garden With Flowers, Berries, Birds, and Trees, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, give us the core guidelines for landscaping a garden that delights in winter. Let's take a look at some of the possibilities for plants, based on what they contribute to the winter garden.

Evergreens alone won't necessarily make an interesting winter garden, but they are the mainstay. They can be used as an accent or to provide a background or framework, and they come in all sizes and shapes. Plus, you'll be surprised at the many textures and shades of green they provide, particularly when you include both needled and broad-leaved evergreens in your garden.

Besides the vast range of evergreen trees and shrubs available, don't forget that there are ground covers and perennials that provide evergreen foliage. These include the ubiquitous creeping juniper, pachysandra, English ivy, vinca, and euonymus. There are perennials to consider, too, such as European ginger; Italian arum; ajuga; thyme; lamb's-ears; bergenia; Labrador viola; and evergreen ferns like common polypody, ebony spleenwort, purple cliff-brake, Christmas fern, and wood fern.

Colorful Accents
Trees and shrubs with berries that last through much of the winter provide the basis of the color accents in the winter garden. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is the hands-down star of this winter show, but other berried shrubs include chokeberry, rockspray cotoneaster, pyracantha, rugosa roses, callicarpa, snowberry, and highbush and European cranberries. Favorite trees with berries include Washington thorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum), dogwood, American holly, possumhaw (Ilex decidua), mountain ash, sumac, and crab apple.

Plants with colorful stems or bark are another addition to the winter garden. Red- and yellow-twigged dogwood are landscaping staples, but the star for color is the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku').

Interesting Form
Deciduous trees and shrubs as well as many perennial plants provide texture and form in the winter garden. Think of tall oaks, broad beeches, pendant willows, or the strongly horizontal branching of dogwoods. Many trees and shrubs also provide interesting, if not colorful, bark. There's the flaking bark of birches and sycamores, the deeply furrowed bark of sweet gum, the mottled bark of yellowwood, and the polished shine of cherries.

Among perennial plants providing interesting forms, ornamental grasses are the winter standout, with their fluid foliage and flower heads waving in the winter winds. But don't overlook the possibilities of leaving garden cleanup until spring, especially with the faded flower heads of sedums, anise hyssop (which the goldfinch love), rudbeckia, and baptisia.

Although we may not think of flowers for the winter garden, there actually are a wide range of choices. The early-flowering bulbs, like Iris reticulata, winter crocus, aconite, snowdrops, and glory-of-the-snow, provide diminutive but welcome color. All of these are at their most showy in mass plantings, but if that is an impossibility, put at least a few near an often-used door. The great popularity of hellebores attests to the pleasure they bring in their many shades of white, pinks, purples, and greens.

Shrubs and trees that contribute flowers from mid-winter on include winter-flowering cherry, the incredibly fragrant winter honeysuckle, cornelian cherry, daphne, fragrant wintersweet, flowering quince, early-blooming magnolia, Japanese flowering apricot, and pussy willow. The stars, however, are the witch hazels with their unusual 'stringy' flowers in shades of yellow, gold, and orange.

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