Let’s face it, no matter what the landscape designers and garden books try to tell us, most of our home gardens look apocalyptic in winter. Abundant scraggly, bare branches, dead flower stalks, drifts of dead leaves from trees, the odd dead-and-never-coming-back plant from last summer and a few fallen branches are what constitute most of our garden patches in the post-first frost months.
No matter how often I am told that old hydrangea flower heads make for “winter interest,” they still look like uninteresting dead flower heads to me.
I have been scouring the internet lately to try to get some good ideas for improving my winter garden. Most of the suggestions include the usual suspects I already grow; camellias, evergreen hollies, winter creeper and the reliable pansy for color. One landscape “expert” who should know better also suggests winter honeysuckle, elaeagnus and English ivy. These are some of the most invasive plants this side of kudzu. A pox upon him.
Let me add a couple of items that do work well in our area in winter. Flowering quince produces flowers that run from scarlet to shades of pink and orange to white. It blooms in January.
There is a house in my neighborhood that has three of these on the curb of their home. They usually look like unremarkable green bushes until the weeks after New Year’s when they come to their true glory. In the cold and gray months they are a bright spot that I never fail to marvel at. I will confess I have thought of going up there in the dark of night and taking a few cuttings. This is also known as “shopping at the Midnight Nursery.” But so far I have resisted any felonious behavior.
Just this fall I acquired a couple of red twig dogwoods shrubs at the Dunwoody Nature Center’s fall plant sale. While they do not bloom in winter, they do give a magnificent display of their red twigs and branches all winter long. If we get a nice snow or two they will show up beautifully as red branches against the white snow.
There is also a yellow twig dogwood that I have seen in pictures, but have never seen in the flesh, or “in the bark” if one is picky. It too looks like a winner for the winter garden.
A couple of trees to consider are the paper birch (aka canoe birch) and the paper bark maple. The paper birch is known for its white, peeling bark. I have always admired these trees, especially when grown in together in groves. However, I always thought of them as a northern plant more suitable for Canada and the U.S. border states of the north. However I have recently learned that these can and do grow in our zones and it may be worth the effort to plant a small bunch of them. More research will be needed on this on my part, but it looks promising.
The paper bark maple has bark similar to our more familiar paper bark birch, but also adds the beauty of some stunning fiery red leaves in the fall. This may also be a contender for a place in my landscape.
And finally, as we head into the holiday season, let me send all of you the very best of wishes for yourself, your family and your garden.
Jeff Coghill has been gardening in DeKalb County for more than 35 years and has probably killed at least one of each kind of plant he has tried before getting another one to thrive. He is a garden volunteer at the Dunwoody Nature Center and works closely with members of the DeKalb Master Gardeners group. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.