Colorful plants for the winter garden

Published on Tue, Nov 22, 2011 by Jody Hackleman

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The bones of my garden are visible now. The leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees and shrubs. Some perennials, if left for the birds, are spindly sticks topped by seed heads. Leaves have been raked and beds have been mulched. And now the broadleaf evergreens are in their prime.  

For most of the year, wandering geraniums and assorted flowering perennials obscure the broadleaf evergreens in my cottage garden. But winter exposes these shrubs, and they must carry the show until the heavily anticipated spring bulb eruption.  Wandering around the yard, there’s plenty to ponder.  What has berries, and what has tiny white flowers? What has glossy leaves and what has an interesting shape?  There is so much structure to be enjoyed when the showier plants have left the scene.

---Here in the northwest we can choose from a bounty of evergreen plants, all healthy and winter hardy.

The workhorse of my garden is viburnum tinus. Untroubled by pests and easily pruned, it tends to be overused in commercial plantings. But that’s no reason to ignore it – it is too valuable in the landscape. Glossy pointed leaves, tidy shape and tiny white or pink flowers make it the perfect choice for filling in wintertime gaps. As a bonus, smoky purple berries form after the flowers have faded. Clip some branches to boost indoor flower arrangements or assemble them into a holiday wreath for the front door. Their smooth, sturdy leaves complement the needly texture of conifers and combine well with holly and ivy in traditional Christmas swags and wreaths.

My borders contain another backbone broadleaf evergreen, euonymus fortunei “Emerald Gaiety,” commonly known as wintercreeper. The small oval leaves of this little shrub are variegated deep green and white, and give variety to the warm-season perennial border. But in winter’s bare beds, wintercreeper revels in the cold to add a new dimension of color interest, as the first touch of frost tinges its leaves with magenta. Prune it to spread as a ground cover, shape it for height or breadth, or just leave it to its own devices.  A lovely plant and virtually trouble-free, buy three of them (they’re quite inexpensive) to arrange in the front row of a bed or border. 

Dwarf rhododendrons are neat little evergreen mounds that adorn otherwise bare ground in winter. Dotted with buds, they reassure us with their promise of color even before spring bulb leaves have pushed up through the frosty ground. Larger rhododendrons are sometimes too assertive in the landscape, but the dwarf varieties are content to quietly assume their role as backbone plants for most of the year, only to shine in late spring for a month or two when they bloom profusely. I have a trio of “Ramapo” dwarf rhodies that oblige me with their purple flowers just as the grape hyacinth and tiny daffodils are starting to fade.

Many perennials maintain their leaves throughout the year in our climate, and among the most useful plants is artemesia. My favorite is “Powis Castle.” Foamy sea-green clumps of leaves on sturdy branches make this plant more shrub-like than a typical perennial. Another star performer is lamb’s ears, with its fuzzy silver leaves making a soothing winter ground cover, shining under the winter moon. Heuchera, or coral bells, offer a variety of year-round leaf colors including chartreuse, butterscotch, burgundy or silvery-green.

For indoor holiday decoration this Christmas, instead of poinsettias I’m buying hellebores, and then planting them in the garden after the holidays. We’re all familiar with the brazen beauty of poinsettias. The allure of their flaming reds or platinum whites has been known to seduce us into the following holiday ritual: Buy the poinsettias, bring them home to enjoy for a month, then toss them out with the empty champagne bottles. Hellebores, however, will not only survive the holidays indoors, but unlike poinsettias, may be planted outdoors to bloom happily through January and throughout the spring bulb display.

Scores of hellebores are popping up everywhere in the local garden centers this season. Sometimes called the Christmas Rose, hellebores are perennials that bloom during the winter as gardeners impatiently await the appearance of snowdrops and crocus. 

Hellebores have long been popular in Europe as holiday decoration and are commonly given as hostess gifts. In the garden, their handsome, leathery leaves are deer resistant and provide year-round structure. The blooms can be star shaped or saucer shaped and single petaled or double ruffled, with colors ranging from a medley of greenish whites to shades of pinks and maroons to purplish-black. Hellebores aid in dispelling winter garden gloom, and their subtle colors are especially appreciated when little else is happening on the landscape floor.

A peaceful stroll in the garden can be a welcome respite from the holiday rush. Winter interest plants help increase our quiet enjoyment of this introspective time of year.

 Above, right: Colorful hellebore will bloom indoors through Christmas and outdoors in January and beyond.