Colors of a Winter Garden

Pat Ferguson
Adams County Master Gardener

Now is the time to plant to have texture, color and interest during the winter months when we long to see something interesting outside.

There are some perennials and herbs that add interest to the garden in winter. Heuchera (called Coral Bells ever since I can remember) has some outstanding varieties. Try one of the purple, red, or mahogany-leaved varieties. The mounds of leaves of this plant are gorgeous in the summer and a welcomed sight in the winter. Heuchera and Ajuga make great year-round plant companions.

Perennial Salvia has varieties with purple leaves also and Lamb’s Ears and Lavender are other perennials to consider. In addition, some cultivars of Joe Pye Weed grow to ten feet showing off their burgundy stems and dark green foliage. The blooms are quite large, reaching 10 inches across, turning from dusky rose to purple - and they remain all winter long. Rosemary often grows quite tall and bushy and sage, Russian sage in particular, with its purple flowers atop silvery foliage, bleaches white for the winter and looks wonderful with shrubs that have bright red berries. The various thymes will give texture in a winter garden as well.

The Sedum (S.) family includes varieties that are perfect for the garden in winter. S. Autumn Joy is a rose color that ages to brick red for the fall and S. Mohrchen with pink and white flowers that age to russet in fall, has deeply colored brown-red foliage. Two additional varieties are S. Vera Jameson with arching blue-gray foliage with maroon tints, flowers deeply pink with white accents; and S. Ruby Glow which has fairly thick foliage, sprawling and mounding, and has delicate flower heads of ruby red atop the foliage.

Hollies (I.) are another versatile plant with their dark green foliage and colored berries. All hollies bloom but only the female plant produces berries, some red, some yellow, others are white or orange, a creamy color, or black. Be sure you have a male holly within about ˝ mile or there won’t be any berries for the winter season. Hollies now come in all shapes and sizes; one of the conical varieties is I. Centennial Girl.

One of the larger varieties (will grow 6-8') is I. Blue Boy (and I. Blue Girl), which has deep green shiny foliage. Small to medium sized hollies hardy to our zone include "Blue Maid", "Blue Princess", "China Girl", and "China Boy". Several proven American Holly plants include "Carnival", "October Glow", "Prancer"; dwarf varieties include "Maryland Dwarf" and "St. Mary’s."

You may also want to consider evergreen azaleas (R.). Two of the larger plants are R. "Magnifica", large fragrant white flowers and bold red flares and R. "Cleopatra" a variety with single flowers colored watermelon pink. The cultivar, "Dreamsicle", is fabulous with single flowers blending from warm pink tones in a mottled effect with lighter pink. "Anna Kehr" is a new double pink cultivar of the evergreen azalea and was developed by a past president of the American Rhododendron Society. The R. Kaempferi evergreen azaleas are medium sized, are very cold-hardy and include "Zampa", a violet red; "Fedora", a deep pink; "Lilac Time" (yep, you guessed it, lilac); "Anna Maria", a lovely white; and "Holland", a deep red.

There are hundreds and hundreds of evergreen shrubs to plant for year-round interest with color choices of varying shades of green, blue, blue-green and so forth. Truly, there is a stunning array of colors, shapes, and sizes out there!

Ornamental grasses are another multi-use plant. They are a popular summer plant and when the blooms appear in late summer they are just delightful! In winter they are well known for both their graceful shapes and their dried plumes. Some varieties to plant for their winter interest are: Feather reed grass which grows to about 4 feet and is nicely plumed in late summer; Red-leaved miscanthus grows about 4 feet and has very striking foliage in September; Fountain grass, growing to about 3 feet with an arching habit; Dwarf fountain grass which grows 18 to 24 inches and can fill a small spot in a garden; Pampas grass growing 8 -10 feet with beautiful plumes in late summer. Slender maiden grass grows 7-8 feet with fine textured foliage and reddish flowers in late September, fading to a tan color for winter. Japanese blood grass is an upright plant that emerges green with red tips in spring and gradually becomes redder. By summer the narrow grassy leaves are two-toned. In autumn the foliage turns to flaming scarlet until frost turns it bronze and winter bleaches it straw colored. This grass grows 12 to 24 inches tall.

Textural interest, color, grace, and silhouette in the winter garden and outside of the garden space can be accomplished by planting several varieties of trees as well as the shrubs and perennials covered last week. First, think of what size the tree will become in the future and what space limitations you have. Planting a young blue spruce tree in a flower garden would not be the best use of the spruce and in time it would crowd everything else out of your flower garden. There are, however, some small and even miniature trees you can place in a garden setting, some weeping ornamental trees and quite a few evergreens you can use.

Beginning with miniatures -- have you seen the miniature weeping willow tree? Wow! Perfect for a garden. They stay small, are very graceful and you have the added advantage of dappled, moving sun and shade patterns in your garden. For the same reasons you can use weeping cherry, weeping plum and crabapple. Japanese maples, either red or green, are always a good looking tree and some varieties stay relatively small or can be pruned to stay small. You may want to try a hydrangea tree in the garden. The topiary shape is great looking and the blooms are generally the same size and quality as on the hydrangea shrub. A red osier dogwood would be another good addition to the garden space. In fall the leaves turn purple and the red-barked stems stand out in the winter landscape.

Slightly larger and more dense are the Smoketree (Royal Purple variety is stunning) which can be left alone to grow wide and tall or pruned to be more columnar and thus a good choice for inside a garden space; and the multi-stemmed crape myrtle which can be either a large shrub or a tree. Its large blooms appear along the top ends of the branches in deep purple, lavender, rose, pink, or white. Winter bark is striking. For evergreen vertical interest consider a member of the juniper family, like "Skyrocket"; or dwarf Alberta spruce or a dwarf spiral Alberta spruce; or small upright conifers. If you are looking for a small, luxurious deep green colored evergreen, look at an Hinoki cypress. It is very slow-growing with a soft look and feel and does well in a garden setting. There are also very attractive cedars, cypresses and hemlocks in small sizes and shapes and the soft, feathery look of their branch ends make them another graceful addition to your garden or property.

There are other trees which are marvelous for winter interest but generally too large for a garden setting. Some of these include: river birch in general, and the cultivar "Heritage" in particular, which show to best advantage planted in groupings of three or more (the peeling, textured bark is a joy in winter); the medium sized Chinese elm produces a bark with combinations of orange, brown, grey and green that shows nicely; and the Paperbark maple, noted for its peeling, showy bark.

The tall, stately evergreens are too numerous to mention but several of the more interesting varieties are the Incense cedar, tall and fairly narrow with red bark and short side branches, this cedar will grow to 50 feet. The Deodar cedar is a fast growing variety with bluish-green needles, the lower branches often sweeping the ground then turning upward, that will grow 50 to 80 feet tall. The Colorado blue spruce is a dazzling tree and, as you know, can be very large, growing to near 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide in average conditions.

Two large varieties are "Bizon Blue", a brilliant blue and "Koster", a silver-blue. An attractive intermediate sized selection would be "Pendula" with blue needles and a weeping shape; and there are interesting dwarf varieties in conical and rounded shapes. Hemlocks are very graceful evergreens with the softer look and dark green needles, some with two white stripes on the underside of the needles. There are many varieties and sizes. The pine family is almost overwhelming -- with so many varieties in the species from which to choose, you actually need to go to a nursery (or two) and see the variety of the pines and other evergreens.

The deeper the shade of green the more dramatic the effect will be both in winter and summer. These deep green evergreens make glorious backdrops for many of our spring and summer flowers including iris, tulips, flowering shrubs, annuals, or to set off a flowering dogwood or redbud tree or a grove of them.

Finally, place your winter-interest plants where you can appreciate them both coming and going from your home and from within. The beauty in winter is more subtle - perhaps we have to look a little harder to see it but once seeing it we are pleased, satisfied and cheered.

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