Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
December, 2009
Regional Report

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Beautyberry clusters bring winter color. Birds can't see purple so they don't eat them.

Celebrating the Winter Garden

Do you recognize yourself in these signs of a winter garden lover: trudging through January snow to admire the first fragrant yellow blooms on a Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida'; appreciating the ice-laden forms of Mahonia aquifolium and Picea pungens; or getting up close and personal with exfoliating river birch bark?

Compared to the splashy colors of summer annuals and perennials, the winter garden has a quiet, subtle, enchanting charm. Mounding evergreens, spiky ornamental grasses, sprawling shrubs, peeling bark, bright berries, bustling birds and squirrels -- they combine to appeal through texture, contrast, form, fragrance, and sound.

"Winter is the time for sofa-gardening. When it's sunny, let's go outside and have a look," Michael Buffin, author of Winter Flowering Shrubs (Timber Press, 2005; $39.95), told gardeners during a talk a few years ago at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. As former curator of Living Collections at The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire, England, Buffin designed its Winter Garden.

The Hillier Gardens in southeast England has mild and dry weather -- a maritime climate comparable to USDA Zones 7 to 8, Buffin said. At Maine's latitude, its Mediterranean-like weather is good for palms and olives but too cool in summer for crape myrtle, he explained.

On this sunny Sunday with temps in the high 50s near Philadelphia, Buffin easily inspired appreciation and reconsideration of the winter garden. Outside on the Morris grounds, witch hazels flowered yellow, and beautyberry bushes held eye-catching purple berries.

"Winter gardening is a lot more about design and use of plants than the plants themselves," Buffin suggested. In winter, "the garden is stripped to its barest, to its briefs, so to speak," he said. This gives us the opportunity "to view plants for their natural beauty," such as the oak tree silhouette framed against the blue sky. While keeping our own USDA zones in mind, we can draw from Buffin's observations.

Year-Round Plant Combinations
For Buffin, winter extends for nearly five months -- from the end of autumn (November) into spring (March). His winter plant palette at Hillier reflects that expanse -- from witch hazels' orange/red fall foliage to the red-flowering Camellia sasanqua 'Crimson King' to early spring-blooming white snowdrops poking through black mondo grass. Come summer, Rhubus cockburnianus 'Goldenvale' adds golden yellow to the mondo mix.

"Winter gardening is about cheating," added Buffin. With few flowers, the winter garden depends on stems, branches, foliage, and light. At Hillier, the least complicated schemes worked the best. And since the garden has to look good in the summer, Buffin grouped plants of various heights and textures to create the feeling of the changing seasons: hellebores next to Chinese silver grass flanked by phormium backed by red-stemmed Cornus alba 'Siberica Variegata' and lace-bark pine.

The winter garden comes to life in the play of sunlight. Buffin designs so that winter sun illuminates stems, branches, and trunks, bark patterns, frosty leaves, and seed heads.

Among Buffin's favorites: Hamamelis x intermedia 'Aphrodite' with fantastic scent, straight orange petals, and suffuse yellow autumn color; Narcissus bulbododium with inconspicuous grasslike foliage. Though some of us will need to substitute hardier varieties (yucca for phormium, for example), Buffin's ideas give us even more reason to celebrate the winter garden.

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