In the Garden:
Middle South
January, 2012
Regional Report

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The waxy flowers of banana shrub, outlined in dark red, offer a heady perfume .

Evergreens are Winter's Primary Players

It's been slow coming, but winter has arrived with a vengeance. After listening to the heating unit run through the night, I rose early this morning to see the thermometer hovering just above the 20 degree mark and to find rhododendrons in telltale form, with their elongated leaves rolled into cigars.

As I examined the garden through my front windows, other evergreens caught my eye. I noticed the foliage of the aucubas had drooped and that the fatsias had flattened their branches, as if they were hugging themselves to keep warm. The hollies and boxwoods, however, stood as stiff and shapely as ever.

Though I seldom dwell on these evergreens in summer, it's easy to see they become the garden's primary players in the cold season. As such, it's hard to overestimate their value.

Whether coniferous or broad-leaved, evergreens relieve the winter landscape of its otherwise gray cloak, and their bulk softens the severity of the stark stems and branches of deciduous trees and shrubs. Both their silhouettes and their shadows are more dramatic in winter, as the low sun sweeps across the horizon.

Evergreens also serve the practical purpose of blocking winter winds around homes, between agricultural fields, and along byways. Their dense cover provides shelter for birds, as well as a cozier habitat for humans, and gives refuge to a wide variety of wildlife during storms.

From the design perspective, they add much-needed structure to the garden. I like them best when they're placed judiciously, creating order or repetition, so they guide us through the landscape.

Recently however, as I've finalized plans to retrench and transition to a more low maintenance garden, I've decided I want something more from these stalwart plants. Color and form in winter are good, but just not enough; there's no room for slackers in a pared-down garden.

Here are a handful of evergreens with exceptional appeal on my "must have" list for the garden:

Dwarf southern magnolias such as 'Little Gem' and 'Teddy Bear' (M. grandiflora) offer flowers that are as striking as the rhododendron's blooms, but also scent the summer garden with a heavenly, citrus-like perfume. Both cultivars are suited to modest-sized gardens and can be artfully pruned into an espalier for particularly tight spots. 'Little Gem' is graced with an especially long bloom period, while 'Teddy Bear' features an attractive rust-colored felt on the undersides of its leaves.

Banana shrub (Michelia figo) provides an even headier fragrance, especially in morning. And though its flowers are smaller, each of its six waxy petals is outlined in dark red. The addition of rich green foliage and a large, handsome form makes this slow-growing evergreen a classic in gardens throughout the Middle South.

Like the fatsia, there are other evergreens that kick the garden up a notch with fun foliage. I'm particularly charmed by 'Soft Cress' mahonia (M. eurybracteata). This compact shrub, useful in both containers and beds, has olive-green, threadlike foliage that resembles bamboo and is soft to the touch. Citron-yellow flowers and silver-blue berries, typical of the genus, also up the ante for this evergreen.

Gold threadleaf false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea'), on the other hand, combines unusual foliage with striking color. A standout in any garden, the shrub is noted for its weeping, thread-like, golden foliage that provides both texture and contrast.

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