In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
September, 2004
Regional Report

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Almost unnoticed in summer, the radiant red berries of this holly brighten my landscape during even the bleakest of winter days.

Plants with Presence

Lately I've noticed a certain crispness in the air, a sure sign that summer is coming to an end. I think fall is a magical time. I love the cooler temperatures, shorter days, and the awesome autumn foliage. They have a soothing effect after the busyness of summer, especially when savored with a cup of hot apple cider.

Our first frost usually arrives in late November and transforms the garden overnight. Trees once decorated with red and yellow leaves will look naked, with only gray-brown branches poking skyward. The leaves seem to fall silently, almost in unison, leaving a colorful blanket beneath the limbs.

Fall is the time I like to assess my garden, take note of the best performers, cull those that didn't fare too well, and decide what to plant for winter interest. I think in winter plants have to be bold. I especially like trees and shrubs with colorful or textured bark, and those with branches laden with colorful berries. Evergreens also can add texture, color, and mass to the winter landscape. Covered with snow, conifers suggest Christmas-card beauty. The Japanese call evergreens "snow flowers" since they appear to bloom in winter, with tufts of snow on the tips of each branch.

Some of My Favorites
There are many ways to add color, texture, and shape to your winter landscape. Since we spend most of our time inside looking out, it's important to take a good look out the windows, thinking of these windows as frames for beautiful pictures we can create. With this insider's view, it's easy to place your shrubs, trees, and perennials to complement that picture.

I like mixing shapes, such as a vertical-growing Vanderwolf pine (Pinus flexilis 'Vanderwolf's Pyramid') set next to a horizontal spreading laceleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'dissectum atropurpureum'). You can also provide contrasts by positioning a dark green needled conifer against a broad-leaved evergreen next to a berried shrub, such as a hardy holly. The delicate, cascading branches of a weeping cherry, the fountain-like form of the buddleia, and the conical shape of a cedar also can add interest and beauty to a winter garden.

Interesting Branches or Bark
Plants I like best because of their winter bark include American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), with smooth, fluted, grayish white bark, and birches (Betula). Whitebarked Himalyan birch (Betula jacquemontii) has brilliant white stems; B. maximowicziana features attractive white bark; B. papyrifera with its white bark looks good next to a stand of hemlock and pine; B. nigra has reddish-brown to cinnamon exfoliating bark. These are best planted in groups of three or more.

Redtwig dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) boasts fire engine red stems, and yellow-stemmed dogwood (C. coloradensis and C. flaviramea) has bright yellow stems that draw finely etched patterns against the winter skies and snow. Unfortunately the deer also appreciate these, so beware.

Stewartia, a small tree with fragrant, white, cup-shaped flowers in early summer, makes a wonderful transition in winter, showing off smooth peeling bark in shades of gold, gray pink, and rose. The shiny silver stems of star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) glisten in the winter sun, and winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus) drops its crimson leaves in fall to expose exotic, ridged bark all winter long.

Interesting Shapes
Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), a gnarled and twisted type of hazelnut with pendulous catkins becomes a striking sculpture in winter.

Laceleaf maple varieties (Acer palmatum dissectum) are delicately mounding plants with striking red to golden-red foliage. The branches create interesting, sometimes horizontal, patterns against the winter sky.

I also like spreading English yew (Taxus baccata 'Repandens'). This plant spreads up to 12 feet wide yet remains just 3 feet tall, making it an excellent plant where a low, dark form is desired.

Finally, heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica 'Harbor Dwarf') produces stiff vertical canes that retain their bamboo-like foliage year-round. Planted in a southern exposure, this shrub is winter hardy, with reddish purple leaflets in winter; the green foliage of 'Moon Bay' turns fiery red in fall and winter on bright red stems.

Winter Flowers or Berries
Lenten rose (Helleborus) are low-growing plants that produce lovely foliage during the summer, then bloom in the off-season. Colors include rose, cream, pink, and deep red. Viburnum bodnantense starts blooming in October, and the pinky blossoms continue to appear into spring on its dark, naked branches. This beauty grows 6 to 10 feet high.

Witchhazel (Hamamelis) are small, spreading shrubs with fragrant gold, yellow, or reddish flowers, blooming from about February into early spring.

No garden would be complete without winter heathers (Calluna vulgaris hybrids). These plants produce white, pink, or red flowers from November until April, and grow about a foot high. They do best in sandy, well-draining soil.

Plants producing bright displays of berries that hang around through the winter are a pleasure to both birds and humans. These include autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), barberry (Berberis), and rugosa roses. Rugosa are the hardiest of all roses; 'Therese Bugnet' produces pink flowers until frost, followed by red to orange hips on maroon stems in fall and early winter; 'Coeur d'Alene' produces hot pink flowers into winter and cherry-red hips.

European cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus) produces showy clusters of scarlet fruit through early winter; hollies, such as Ilex glabra with lustrous leather-like leaves, hold clusters of deep red to black berries well into winter. The holly needs a mate because only the female produces the shiny, black berries.

There are dozens and dozens of other plants from which to choose as you're designing your winter garden. After you've decided what to plant this fall to provide winter interest, you can sit back and relax. One of the real delights of a winter garden is that there's virtually nothing to do in the way of maintenance. There's no watering, no weeding, and no deadheading. All you have to do is look out the window and enjoy!


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