by Carol Wallace
Stacks of interesting catalogs should be winging their way to your home as you read this. Some of them may be in your mailbox now. And if so, you may want to go get them, sit down and do a bit of serious thinking about ordering some plants that you can still get into the ground this fall. Gardening season may be winding down, but that shouldn't mean the end of a beautiful garden. Even for people in the frozen north there are plants that can add interest in winter. And fall is a great time for planting.
Everyone thinks of evergreens when we talk about winter color. But why settle for green? The old, old pines in our yard are so dark against the winter sky that they may as well be black. And winter has enough black and grey as it is. I'm talking about adding real color!
If you must have evergreens, why not try gold? Goldthread chamaecyparis pisifera 'filifera aurea' is like having a spot of sunlight in the winter garden. Many so-called evergreens come in golds that turn bronze in the winter. Thuja "Rheingold" turns a brownish bronze that cause many to falsely conclude that it is dead. But it moves too softly in the breeze to be dead, and is actually a bright russet that adds life to the landscape.
I always hated yellow and gold in the garden until I planted the goldthread chaemi. But looking out the kitchen window at this golden spot silhouetted against the old dark pines never fails to give pleasure -- so much so that I decided to play up that kitchen view by ordering still more things that bring life to the winter landscape. There were many other conifers to choose from. I was entranced with the columnar juniper, Juniperus scopulorum 'Moonglow" , which is not green but a silvery, intense blue. Picea pungens 'Compacta' is more of a powdery, icy blue. Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Boulevard" is almost silver (and soft as a teddy bear!) Andorrah juniper turns lavender-plum in the cold. All are a pleasant alternative to green. And it's not too late to order and plant them now. Check the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on the best way to grow these gems!
But all of these, other than the golds, are perhaps a bit cold of hue, too icy to lift our spirits in the gloom of winter. We want fire, and brightness! What better than firethorn (pyracantha)to light up our view? This is not something you want to put near a path, as it really is thorny. But it is also as fiery red as its name implies -- a warming sight on a cold, snowy day.
Another good plant you may want to think about ordering before planting season ends is a Ilex 'Sparkleberry", a holly. This is probably the most prolifically berried of the ilex genus. If you order one, make sure to also order a mate for it, since hollies come in males and females -- and it takes both to make berries. I. 'Apollo' makes a suitable mate.
But berries may provide only fleeting color, since they also attract birds (yet another form of winter color). And birds eat berries.
The popular PJM Rhododendron is a nice source of color, with leaves that turn a lovely bronze-red-purple in winter. Any evergreen rhododendron or mountain laurel will provide a touch of leafy green.
A tree's bark can be even more colorful than foliage. The most popular tree for winter bark is, perhaps, the red-twig dogwood, Cornus alba 'Siberica". Only the young twigs are really bright. Trim the twigs to the ground every spring and they reemerge fully leafed, then bare themselves in winter, a brilliant carmine against the snow. A mass off these can look like distant flames. They look even more so if paired with the yellow-twigged dogwood, Cornus sericea flaviramea. Together they make a bonfire. Best of all - get the new 'Midwinter Fire' - it starts out yellow at the base and gets progressively redder as it rises - just like a living flame. Fabulous!
Prunus maackii, a member of the Manchurian cherry family has bark that is almost metallic mahogany, and peels like a birch. Messy in summer, perhaps, but quite satisfying in a sea of white snow. Or you could go with white barked birch if you like that ghostly look.
If snows aren't too deep, the best and most vibrant source of winter color comes from the family of heaths and heathers. Many may sport green foliage in summer, although some are bronze, pewter or gold -- but in winter many come into their true glory, with foliage that can turn fiery orange and gold, or pink and cream-tipped. The biggest bonus is -- they flower! Erica carnea is a great source for winter floral display; some start blooming in fall, some in January, and some in very early spring. Imagine bright mauve flowers on Valentine's Day!
Of course if you live in the warmer parts of the country you can have other plants that flower. Like Helleborus niger, often called the Christmas rose because in some areas it blooms at that season. Helleborus orientalis and H. hybridus are also early bloomers and can make quite a splash! Here they bloom a bit later - usually March- but they beat the crocuses in bloom time, Another bulb that usually blooms before the crocus and with snow still on the ground is Iris reticulata.
Winter-blooming honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) comes earlier. While it's white flowers won't wow you on a sunny day, it's fragrance will. So will that of witch hazel (Hamamelis) which, depending on variety can bloom in late fall or late winter.
If all of these fail you, look at the magnolia tree, whose buds sit ready to unfurl and promise spring, or the rhododendron which hold its flowers ready for early summer.
Make some wise choices now and winter won't be half so gloomy later.
About the Author
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.