Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
February, 2011
Regional Report

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Curling strips of cinnamon-colored bark on the river birch make an eye-catching accent in the winter landscape.

Barking Up the Right Tree

When I think about adding trees to my landscape, my first impulse is often to consider characteristics such as flowers and leaves when making my choices. But then I think of the old saying about Vermont -- ten months of winter and two months of bad sledding. While that's a wee bit of exaggeration (although as I look at the piles of snow from this winter's latest storm, maybe not!), I remember how important it is to keep my garden interesting over the long winter as well as during the growing season by paying attention to attributes like the color and texture of a tree's bark.

When it comes to interesting bark, birches are probably tops on everyone's list. The paper birch (Betula papyrifera), with its white bark that peels off in strips to reveal pinkish-orange inner bark, is a beautiful sight in the winter landscape. Unfortunately, this denizen of northern forests it is not very adaptable to landscape settings, where it is short-lived and vulnerable to infestation by the bronze birch borer. The cultivars 'Renci,' also known as the Renaissance birch, and 'Varen,' sold as Prairie Dream, have been bred to have greater tolerance for heat and dry soil and show better resistance to borers.

A more trouble-free birch for most landscapes is the borer-resistant river birch (Betula nigra), whose orange-and-cinnamon colored, curling bark makes a dramatic show against a blanket of winter white. While it prefers soil on the moist side, it is quite adaptable and will tolerate both wetter and drier soils. 'Cully,' sold as Heritage, is an improved and widely available cultivar.

Peeling bark is a standout on the aptly named paperbark maple (Acer griseum). The reddish-brown bark on this small tree (25 feet tall, 20 feet wide at maturity) makes a striking accent in winter after its autumn leaves have lit up the landscape with hues of red and orange. Usually listed as hardy to Zone 5 (some sources say Zone 4), this native of the mountains of central China will thrive in full sun or part shade and is tolerant of heavy soils and a wide pH range. It's fairly slow growing -- I planted one in my mother's yard a couple of decades ago and it is now only about 15 feet tall -- but there are few trees that make such a striking focal point. Some hybrids between paperbark maple and Nikko maple have been developed that are reputed to be faster growing. Look for 'Cinnamon Flake' and 'Ginzam' (also called Gingerbread).

Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia and S. koreana) is truly a tree for all seasons. In summer, its large, white, camellia-like blossoms grace the garden; in fall its leaves change to gold, orange, and red. When they drop, the beauty of the bark is revealed. The reddish brown outer bark flakes off in patches, exposing inner bark in an eye-catching combination of pink, tan, and gray. Listed as hardy to zone 5, mine has grown happily in well-drained, acid, sandy soil in my zone 4 garden for a dozen years.

While evergreens contribute their foliage color and texture to the landscape year-round, the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) adds a picturesque form and strikingly colored bark to the show as well. Its flaking bark is a eye-catching mosaic of gray, green, cinnamon and cream; prune the lower branches so you can appreciate its beauty.This is a slow-growing tree; its ultimate size of 30-50 feet isn't reached for many years, so it can function as a smaller tree in garden settings. The cultivar 'Compacta' is even more restrained, growing at about half the rate of the species. Hardy to zone 5 and worth a try in the warmer parts of zone 4, lacebark pine does best in moist, well-drained soil and full sun.

Be sure to place these trees along walkways or in view of windows, so you can easily admire their striking good looks during the cold months of the year. Although the appeal of the winter garden may be more subtle than that of the bright colors of other seasons, with some planning it can still offer a visual bounty to delight the eye.

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