Winter Barn at Chatfield, Denver Botanical Garden
We always think of the first day of a new season as a holiday, one of nature’s holidays, a marking of time which reminds us to take stock of what is important. This year, Dec. 21 marks the Winter Solstice when all living beings in the northern hemisphere experience the fewest hours of daylight. For thousands of years, societies around the earth have celebrated the Solstice by having feasts, making merry with song and drink, and keeping an ever burning fire. Many of our favorite rituals of the Christmas holidays had their origins in Winter Solstice Celebrations.
As gardeners we have reason to celebrate light. The sun is essential for growth, and the winter months restrict us by limiting daylight. Sure, you can are argue that we need this down time to rest, to contemplate. But the sun is our source, and we can easily turn moody and feel depleted until ample light returns.
Why give in completely? We came across a website created by a group of Canadian artists, who know a thing about illuminating long winter nights. Their adventurous spirit can provide inspiration for us all. Why not ward off the darkness by bringing light into your garden? You don’t have to be elaborate, and the display doesn’t have to come down the day after New Year’s. Some thoughts: Adorn a garden structure with a strand of lights, illuminate a lovely tree with a ground spotlight. Create a blaze in your fire pit or line a walkway with luminaria. It will make your heart, and the hearts of those passing by, glow a little too.
December is the perfect month to enjoy this eyecatching deciduous holly whose brilliant berries, clustered on bare branches, provide splashes of color to the early winter landscape. Commonly called Winterberry, this North American native is found in the wild from Nova Scotia to Florida, usually growing in low lying areas, since it doesn?t mind wet feet. It is nonetheless adaptable to many soil types and will be happy enough in dryer locations. A large number of clones have been selected for their eventual stature, as well as for variation in fruit color and size.
As you probably know, the genus Ilex is dioecious, meaning there are different male and female flowering plants, and they have to tango for fruit set. Take note that there are earlier and later flowering selections of Ilex verticillata and it is a good idea to plant a male counterpart that blooms at the same time as the female clone. Some of the earlier blooming female clones such as ‘Red Sprite’, ‘Berry Heavy’ and ‘Berry Nice’ should be pollinated with the male clone ‘Jim Dandy’. Use ‘Southern Gentleman?’, a late-blooming male pollinator for ‘Winter Red’, ‘Winter Gold’, ‘Capacon’, ‘Sparkleberry’ and the other later blooming girls.
Ilex verticillata waits until fall to become a star when the berries begin to color, so it is best sited in a spot where it does not have to be commanding all season long. Remember Winterberry does sucker, but this can be useful where you want to create a screen to attract wildlife. A number of years ago, we used it in repetition behind one of our beds that borders a wet area, and the planting now provides us with a bounty of branches for cutting. Eventual plant size is dependent on which cultivars you select, and they range from 3-4′ to 12′ or more. Plants enjoy sunny or partially shaded exposures, soil that is acid to neutral, and are hardy through zone 4.
As tempting as Black Friday Shopping is (or isn’t), why not plan an alternative activity on the day after Thankgsiving. Have a thermos with hot cider ready and invite a couple of friends or family members to wander about your garden to gather greens and branches for wreaths and decorating. You’re bound to find a varied selection of evergreens and branches, bare but structural, or decorated with berries and seed pods.
Don’t restrict yourself to the traditional selections…Holly, Boxwood and Pine. You’ll be surprised how well unexpected clippings work. Junipers provide blue-gray foliage and often have attractive blue fruit. Chamaecyparis offer a wonderful array of foliage colors ranging from gold through amber, bronze and dark green, and I love clipping the branches that are adorned with artful cones. Consider twigs with interesting bark or an attractive zig zag habit which will twinkle when coated with morning frosts. Red and gold twig dogwoods offer colorful linear accents, while birch branches can often be found dripping with catkins.
Word of caution: When cutting for arrangements, first be sure you observe how your pruning will effect the shape of the plant. Stand back and view the subject from different angles. You can prune/improve the shape of the shrub and have branches for arranging at the same time.
Display these cut branches in an outdoor container ensemble right away or wait. The smaller cuttings need not go to waste; they can be used to construct a wreath for your door. If you?re not quite ready to decorate, the greens and cut branches can be stored in a cool space until needed. Indoor arrangements created now will become quite brittle and shatter by Christmas, so you may want to wait or plan to do two sets of arrangements, one for now and one for later.
You won’t pay much attention to Blood Twig Dogwood in spring and summer. The ordinary green foliage is attractive enough, but it does not sing “Here I am!”. It’s not until autumn, when Cornus sanguinea ‘Arctic Sun’ starts to make music in clear apricot tones with the changing fall foliage. Colder temperatures transform its green branches into stalks of vibrant yellow, orange and red which glow in an otherwise increasingly dull landscape.
‘Arctic Sun’ (a.k.a. Cornus sanguinea ‘Cato’) is a compact clone of Blood Twig Dogwood, reaching only 4-5′ tall as opposed to 8-10′, and this size is useful in smaller gardens. It thrives in average to moist soil in full sun or part shade, is deer resistant, and is hardy in zones 4-7, which means it will take temperatures to minus 30F, but probably won?t be happy in mild winter climates. We recommend planting ‘Arctic Sun’ in a location so that the dazzling winter stems can be viewed from an inside perch, perhaps where you sit with your morning coffee, or where you might pass by as you enter and leave your home. You’ll enjoy the show all winter, and may even be inspired to cut a few branches for decoration.
One thing you should note is that the best color on twig dogwoods is displayed on young wood. Every two or three years you should “stool” yours plants in early-mid spring. Stooling is a simple pruning technique where you cut back the entire shrub to about 6′ above ground. The new growth will provide a more colorful display when late fall and winter arrives.
Japanese Clethra is waiting to be discovered. It is a plant for all seasons, boasting fragrant mid summer blossoms, yellow-orange to red fall foliage, and exfoliating bark in winter. If left unpruned it will grow as a multistemmed shrub or small tree, but we prefer to see it trained to a single leader, with lower limbs removed, so that the showy bark can be better appreciated.
We were smitten when our young plant came into bloom in July. Trios of sweetly scented white, 4-6″, twisting racemes will drip from the branches into August. The ovate serrated foliage, in a shade of dark green, really sets off the white blossoms. Fall color is also striking, ranging form yellow orange to deep red. Although Clethra barbinervis is fast growing, it seems to reach an ultimate height of 15-20′. It prefers a well drained, neutral or slightly acidic soil with adequate moisture. Clethra barbinervis grows well in partial shade, although it will tolerate and bloom abundantly in full sun, if watering needs are met. It can be cultivated in zones 5-8.
There is something especially striking about flowers which adorn bare branches before any signs of leaf growth appear. Hamamelis x ‘Feuerzauber’, a German hybrid selection of Withchazel (translation Fire Dragon), is hardy in zones 5-8 and boasts showy orange to red fragrant flowers in late February and March, which are as lovely cut for indoor arrangements as they are gracing the late winter landscape.
We recommend situating ‘Feuerzauber’ where you can enjoy its display from an indoor window. In fact, why not plant early blooming Crocus or yellow Narcissus ‘February Gold’ near its base for one of the first colorful ensembles of spring. ‘Feuerzauber’ will form a large shrub (15-18) with a pleasing upward spreading habit. It may not sing loudly in summer but it will celebrate Autumn with an amazing symphony of orange, yellow and red foliage.
Large Specimens available for nursery pickup.