Category Archives: Winter Interest

plants that add interest in the winter landscape

Hygge…& Celebrating Winter’s Gifts

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Aronia arbutifolia “Brilliantissima’ with the first snowfall

Last week’s arctic blast brought temperatures in the single digits and truly announced that winter had arrived. Ready or not, garden chores were a wrap and the time had come for most of us to give ourselves permission to chill…indoors! 

We gardeners are naturally inclined to follow the rhythm of the seasons, and the shorter days of winter are a check for us to slow down and restore our energies. You, like I, may resist going into full hibernation mode, but why not take cues from Scandinavian folks, who endure even shorter days than we do. For example, the Danes practice hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) as part of daily life. Hygge can’t be translated into English with a single word, but imagine feelings or activities that promote coziness enhanced by candles or firelight….think warm socks and woolen sweaters, friendly gatherings before a roaring fire, warm beverages in your hands, looking dreamily at snowy scenes through frosted window panes, and late afternoon nature walks to catch the last rays of light.

The words of many secular Christmas carols promote feelings of hygge. There is no need to stop at the Yuletide’s end; we should make it our practice to continue hygge through the long winter. Take back the darkness by continuing to light candles or drape strands of white lights, then sit in your most comfy chair under a coverlet and lose oneself in a good book or listen to music, or finish knitting that scarf you started last year. All too soon spring will arrive, and the garden will beckon.

What interpretations of  hygge do you practice in winter? Would you like to share?

Now Revealed

weetamoo_berries2There is much to observe in the winter landscapes surrounding us here in New England. This past Sunday, Chris and I revisited nearby Weetamoo Woods in Tiverton RI. The deciduous trees have mostly let go of their leaves, and what is now revealed might go unnoticed earlier in the season or be at a totally different stage.  For example, above, the pesky green briar offers subtle beauty with its zigzag lines and blue black orbs of fruit against the waning light.weetamoo_woods_bark_moss_lichen_stone500Now, without the distraction of spring’s brilliant greens or autumn’s blazing red and gold tones, natural stone, tree trunks and moss become the main attractions…weetamoo_woods_stone500Look at this end of a wall formation embossed with aged lichen and liverwortsweetamoo_woods_ferninrock500There are colorful surprises…even at some distance, this olive green Rock Fern, happily embedded in a fissure of this sculpted stone, stood out.weetamoe_woods_ferninrock_detail500A closer view of the fern’s habitat.weetamoo_woods_stonewall500A dry laid stone wall still stands proudly and has developed a patina money can’t buy.weetamoo_woods_stream500Life and sounds emanating from this creek announced the remains of an old saw mill nearby.
weetamoe_woods_arch_bridge_chris500 Chris, a master stone wall artisan himself, inspected an ancient arched stone bridge which spanned the creek further ahead.weetamoo_woods500The vertical rhythm of tree trunks countered the soft crunch of oak leaves on the forest floor. Note to self: How simple, how peaceful.weetamoo_woods_wall1_500Dry laid stone walls, like this handsome and still structurally sound example in Weetamoo Woods,  acted as boundaries for livestock in earlier days, and now mark “rooms” throughout the property. Here and there, a tree might take root at its base, but a caregiver has seen to it that bramble hasn’t obscured its presence.

We can all be thankful for the simple beauty of our local woodlands, preserved with sensitive editing by the stewards who care for them. Imperfections, such as a wall slightly tumbled, may not be tolerated in some of our more cultivated gardens but are celebrated where the natural landscape rules.

Is there a special woodland walk near you which you find restorative? Perhaps you would like to share a special place with our readers.

From my window…

2016_nov_16outmywindow2webI love an autumn that lingers, that gently let’s go of leaf and blossom, that holds onto color made more vivid against a changing gray sky. A day or two or three of mild temperatures can make us forget that the naked garden of December and January awaits.  Right now I am enjoying this picture from my window, as it about to change, and yet will continue to offer interest in the cold months ahead.

What do you see when you look out your window? Are you pleased with your view? Does it include evergreen plants which add bold mass and keeps some color happening? Is there a nicely pruned tree whose silhouette can show off the tracings of winter snow? And do you notice branches that take on red or gold or purple pigments when temperatures drop, adding subtle hues, (but color nonetheless).

Do your plantings also invite the activity of birds? Will you catch the scarlet flash of a cardinal, who finds refuge in a dense evergreen, or the business of chickadees, who flit from one branch to the next, waiting for safe moments to descend upon the feeder.

From my window, the Hinoki Cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa compacta, provides a dark green screen from the road, and the winterberry, Ilex verticillata, adds brilliance for at least another month. The Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’ will let go any day now, but we’ll suspend a feeder from its branches for the birds. The Forest Grass, Hakonechloa macra, will change from gold to tan. And then in late winter, the scene will flush anew reminding  me that spring is on its way, with color from early bulbs and Hellebores.

What plants are your favorites for winter interest?

…wish you had a Winter Greenhouse?

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The Aloes begin to bloom in January

Maybe it’s a luxury, or maybe not…

One of the perks of running a nursery is that on any winter morning I can walk out to the heated 100′ greenhouse and smell the promise of spring. We can’t afford to have the heat cranked up….the thermostat is set at 55F in the warmer half, just enough heat to keep our Begonia collection from pouting . The rear 50′ section drops to 45F at night, and this is where we store our Salvia, Phormium, tender succulents, and plants for forcing.  As the daylight hours gradually increase, early blooming plants set buds and begin to unfurl.

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Today’s arrangement of cut and forced material, including Daphne, Hellebores, Echeveria, Aeonium , Begonia and Ivy

Up until a half  century ago, it was not uncommon for gardeners to have some form of greenhouse structure to protect tender plants, force bulbs and other flowers for arranging, grow herbs and to get a start on seed sowing. For the most part these were not formal glass houses, but homemade lean to’s and pit frames built into a south facing slope or dug into the earth to take advantage of geothermal warming. These “pits” were excavated to a depth of 4′ or more, with hay bales tucked along the perimeter for insulation. Recycled window sashes were used to allow light into the frames, as these were the days before plastic and polyethylene.

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A dear gardening friend, Elinor Malcom, who was one of our nursery’s first customers, loved her “pit” in Carlisle MA. where she wintered over many treasures including a collection of Camellias that belonged to her mother. Ellie’s mom had been an accomplished gardener and was good friends with Kathryn Taylor, who co-authored with Edith Gregg, the book Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sun-heated Pit, first published in 1941, now out of print.  My husband Chris was lucky to find a copy in a local used book store sometime ago. (PS…your library may have a copy!)

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pages illustrated with early photos of pit frames

This practical book does go into the how-to’s of small greenhouse growing, but I think the authors hit a happy nerve with their enthusiasm for solar pit houses. Ms. Taylor and Ms. Gregg showed how, with a little Yankee ingenuity and thriftiness, the average home gardener could have the luxury of blossoms and greenery during the winter months without electricity or heating units. The prose is entertaining and easy to understand and there are a number of good technical illustrations as well as charming B & W photographs.The women shared not only their successes but some of the pitfalls they encountered (no pun intended). The last chapters focus on recommended plants for winter forcing. I was greatly impressed with their expertise and ability to use materials  that were easy to be had without great expense, and I loved the simple but direct dedication at the book’s beginning: To the husbands who dug the holes”.

An online search indicated Winter Flowers in Greenhouse and Sunheated Pit is available as a used book on Amazon, but I would also recommend checking out second hand book shops.  For those who are interested in learning more about constructing a pit greenhouse, check out these links: Mother Earth News,  Inspiration  Green, and Solar Innovations. There are now many publications on the subject, some more suited to commercial growing.

Wouldn’t it help you to get through the winter if you could walk out your door after a snowstorm and bring in a gathering of fresh flowers and greenery?

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

What shrub has evergreen foliage resembling both holly and fern, blooms in late fall/early winter with a candelabra of fragrant primrose yellow flowers, is drought tolerant once established and not a favorite of marauding deer? Answer: Mahonia x media ‘Charity, a hybrid of the two species, M. japonica and M. lomariifolia.

Ever since I saw a form of Mahonia  blooming in winter in the Plymouth MA garden of my friend Susanne, I have wanted to have this plant in my garden. Certainly, this is pushing the hardiness limits in our neck of the woods, so I have been  scouting for a very protected spot (thinking of a clearing in our now dense grove of Yellow Groove Bamboo).  ‘Charity’ is hardy to 0 degrees F, but we usually dip below that for at least a day or two each winter.

Of course all of you who live in balmier zones 7-9 should consider giving this winter interest plant a try.  It is a broadleaf evergreen, and so it would be prudent to choose a site with protection from winter winds and strong western sun. Plants develop a vase shape and usually grow to 5-7’ tall but can reach 10’ in mild climates, with a width of 3-6’. The flowers begin forming in late October, providing unexpected color when you need it most from late November into January. The multiple upright racemes of small flowers are magnets for bees, who may venture out on mild days. Rich blue fruit follow in spring, thus the common name Grape Holly,  and these are relished by birds. Older foliage may take on reddish tones in late winter, and tarnished leaves should be pruned once fresh growth begins to unfurl.

Mahonia can be grown in full sun or dappled shade, but if grown in full sun it it may require a bit more watering in dry spells. I should also add that the foliage has rather unfriendly sharp edges, and can deliver a “look but don’t touch” message to passerby.

Do you grow any forms of Mahonia and how have they performed where you live? Please share your experience.

In Color: Hardy Succulents

Clockwise from left: Sempervivum 'Pacific Blue Ice', Sedum 'Angelina', Semeprvivum 'Carmen', Sedum album 'Coral Carpet', Sempervivum 'Topaz', and Sedum stefco

Clockwise from left: Sempervivum ‘Pacific Blue Ice’, Sedum ‘Angelina’, Semeprvivum ‘Carmen’, Sedum album ‘Coral Carpet’, Sempervivum ‘Topaz’, and Sedum stefco

It is early April here in New England, and as the snow retreats, a walk about the garden reveals color from unexpected plants…winter hardy succulents. Yes the early crocus and snowdrops are showing off, but they will come and go quickly. Since we’re still flirting with frosts and will not begin to see rich greens and bright pastels until the end of the month, the delicious burgundy and coral tones taken on by many hardy Sempervivum and Sedum provide a different color palette. These hardy succulents may not grab your attention when plant shopping, since many gardeners aren’t selecting plants at nurseries until warmer temperatures prevail. By late spring, the intense foliage hues change to more muted blue green and olive coloring. And of course, there are many more brightly colored blossoms to distract us.

If you’re taking a survey of your gardens right now, consider where you can use the rich, changing colors and textures that winter hardy succulents provide. They require minimal care and look good year round, especially the “evergreen” forms. Many are hardy into zone 3 plus are deer and rabbit resistant.  They ask only for sun and good drainage, and can winter over admirably in containers as well.

The receding snow (we had over 3′ at one point) did not harm Sempervivum ‘Carmen’ in the least.

The receding snow (we had over 3′ at one point) did not harm Sempervivum ‘Carmen’ in the least.

Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’

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Let us reacquaint you with an underutilized evergreen plant for cold climates.

Bold, colorful, architectural evergreen foliage. Dramatic creamy nodding lily flowers in early summer. Deer and rabbit resistant, it grows in poor and dry soils, and is perfectly hardy in zones 4-9. Why oh why don’t more landscapers and gardeners plant Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’?

Yucca ‘Color Guard’ provides northern gardeners with a brightly colored vertical accent for mixed border plantings. Plants attain a foliage height of  24″, and when ‘Color Guard’ chooses to bloom, those creamy white lilies are held on 4-5′ tall towering stalks. Hummingbirds almost swoon over the plants in pour garden. We have it planted in a hot dry bed, with Acanthus hungaricus, Crambe maritima   Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ and dwarf evergreens.

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Beesia deltophylla

Beesia deltophylla in bloom in early June

Beesia deltophylla in bloom in early June

We shouldn’t be surprised many people do not know or grow little Beesia. This Buttercup relative was brought into the U.S. from China by Dan Hinkley of Heronswood Gardens fame less than 20 years go. Sometimes thought of as a west coast plant, we have found that when sited in a protected spot it has thrived for half a dozen years in our zone 6A garden.

Beesia deltophylla is semi evergreen for us, but in mild winter climates folks can enjoy its glossy dark green heart shaped foliage all year round. The silvery veining adds a nice accent, and in late spring and early summer it sends up 10-15″ stems bearing dainty white flowers. We have included it with Hellebores, Epimedium and Hakonechloa in an understory planting under our ancient oak tree.

To grow Beesia well, provide a well drained soil that is rich with humus, and irrigate during dry spells. In cold climates like ours, let the fallen leaves acts as a winter mulch or spread sterile straw over the plants to protect from cruel winter winds. We suggest using it in urban gardens, which are often more protected.

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Giving Thanks

As much as gardeners quickly express frustration about weather, insect pests, or deer browsing, we really are a thankful lot. We are thankful more often than we acknowledge :  for sunshine, rain, snow cover, good bugs, birds, rich earth….Most importantly,  I think we are grateful for the plants which grace our gardens.

After yesterday’s much needed torrential rainfall (thankful!), this morning’s view from my window is tranquil except for the activity at the bird feeders. I’m viewing a corner of our garden which is designed with plants that provide winter interest: Hinoki Cypress Chamaecyparis obtusa, Japanese Forest Grass Hakonechloa macra, Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Blue Heaven’, Hellebores Helleborus ‘Golden Lotus’, a beloved Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Katsura‘, a Wheel Tree Trochodendron aralioides (recently planted, fingers crossed…putting it through the hardiness test) plus the showiest plant right now, Winterberry, Ilex verticillata ‘Berry Heavy’ which like all of the hollies this year, is heavy with fruit.

Soon the birds will pick off the winterberry fruit, and this picture will change as it will again and again throughout the year. I am reluctant to see blossoms fade and watch leaves fall, but then I realize I am truly grateful that this picture from my window is always changing. A new day, a new season awaits which will provide new gifts to be thankful for.

 Happy Thanksgiving!

Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt Aso’

Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt Aso’

Even though the sun was shining today, I was still feeling discouraged by yesterday’s snowfall. As I went out to make sure all the greenhouses were properly closed for the day I caught a glimpse of pink, shimmering in the late afternoon light. Greeting me with optimistic charm was the pink pussy willow Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt Aso’ . I had planted one last fall, and it was set off quite dramatically by the freshly fallen snow.

Salix chaenomeloides is the Latin name for giant pussy willow. It is native to Japan but adapts well to a wide range of garden situations including sandy, average and even quite moist soil. Plants can get quite large, 15′ or more, but in order to have a steady supply of branches which will bear the rosy red catkins (which are male flowers by the way, are you surprised?) you should coppice (cut back to 1-2′ above ground) every 2 or 3 years. This will keep plant size a more reasonable 6-8′, and provide you with an ample supply of cut branches for winter arrangements

Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt Aso’ is hardy to zone 4. You know you want one. Go for it. I guarantee that if you plant  ‘Mt. Aso’ this year, you’ll be smiling next March, even if “return to winter” weather tends to make you grumpy.

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