Category Archives: Winter Interest

plants that add interest in the winter landscape

In Bloom for the Winter Solstice

A number of years back, one of the seed exchanges we belonged to listed Pycnostachys urticifolia, aka Blue Witch’s Hat. How cool, I thought, and with a common name like that, maybe it will be in fun bloom for Halloween! I clicked the “add to order” box without doing any more research.

The seed arrived and it was then that I sought the technical data:  Pycnostachys urticifolia has deep cobalt blue spires, with a noted bloom period of late fall into winter. It is not hardy here in southern New England…it winters over outdoors only in zones 9-10Blue Witches Hat grows quickly from seed and can flower the first year, with an eventual height of 4-5′. It is considered a shrub where it is hardy but its late blooming time hinders its sales potential  as a tender perennial in colder climates (which might explain why it’s seldom seen on plant lists). If you want to grow it on well you will need indoor space, either a greenhouse or a large sunroom, but what a treat it is to see its conical spires of intensely colored indigo blossoms on the shortest days of the year.

Lucky us, we have a greenhouse and now, at the Winter Solstice,  Pycnostachys provides us with lovely stems to add to a holiday bouquet of white variegated Boxwood and silvery Elk Horn Cedar cuttings.

Would you make room for this in your indoor winter space?

 

“Persistent” Perennials

Glossy evergreen European Ginger with fallen Acer foliage in early November.

I’m already missing the technicolor foliage of early November, but so it is and it’s not ALL brown out there. During this morning’s garden stroll my gaze caught sight of  various shades of green, silver, and even gold…not only from conifers but from perennials with persistent foliage.

Helleborus foetidus

It’s good to remember there are perennials that retain handsome foliage into winter. Some are considered semi-evergreen as their leaves may finally succumb once the temperatures drop into the low teens.  In order to extend their attractiveness, consider planting in a protected spot, perhaps close to the house or at the base of larger evergreens.   

Of course there are the Hellebores. There is Helleborus foetidus which begins to set bud in mild December weather, and the legendary Christmas Rose (the hybrid clones ‘Jacob’ and ‘Josef Lemper’ can begin flowering by Thanksgiving).  The many Helleborus orientalis clones retain their leaves but won’t set buds until March in our area.

Cyclamen coum

Another shade lover is Asarum europeanum commonly called European Ginger,  with its glossy dark green round foliage persists all winter. By spring it will need a cut back to welcome fresh new growth.  It doesn’t increase that quickly but is hardy in zones 4-8.

Hardy Cyclamen bloom in autumn, but their attractive foliage persists through winter. They love dry shade and actually do well at the base of trees with root competition. The two species to try are C. coum and C. hederifolium, both of which are hardy in zones 6-10.

Arum italicum ‘Pamela Harper’

A walk about the garden offered Arum italicum ‘Pamela Harper’,  other wise known as Lords and Ladies, which pops up in the October garden from summer dormancy and remains until late spring.

Rhodea japonica foliage in December.

Rhodea japonica (Japanese Sacred Lily) is grown for its evergreen lustrous dark green strap-like  foliage . We’ve had this in the garden for 20 years, a testament to its hardiness.

Very happy Epimedium ‘Domino’ foliage.

Many Epidemium are considered semi evergreen here in southern New England. ‘Domino’ , pictured above, looks especially sturdy despite last night’s temperatures in the mid 20’s.

More shade area candidates: Disporopsis pernyi is commonly referred to as Evergreen Solomons Seal.  It will form nice thicket in a shady protected bed. Of the persistent ferns, I especially like the Dryopteris erythrosora (Autumn Fern).

Sedum reflexum 'Angelina'

Sedum ruprestre ‘Angelina’

Don’t forget that Sempervivum (Hens and Chicks) and a number of Sedum species keep their foliage year round.  There’s golden leaved Sedum ruprestre ‘Angelina’ which takes on amber tones.  Another evergreen little creeper is Sedum album ‘Coral  Carpet’. Cold temperatures will bring out coral red tints to the dark green succulent leaves.

Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’

Many gardeners have a disdain for Yucca, but I celebrate its ability to put up with hot sunny dry conditions, produce bayonet stalks with white lily flowers which attract hummingbirds and pollinators, and  for the their architectural form in winter.  Yucca ‘Color Guard’  boasts  yellow variegation that glows.

Euphorbia myrsinites

Other candidates for a sunny well drained spot are some of the Euphorbia (Spurge).   Euphorbia myrsinites, above, perpetuates by self sowing in poor gravelly soil.and is hardy in zones  5-9.

I do try year after year to winter over outdoors the Euphorbia x martinii hybrids such as Ascot Rainbow’ ,  not always with success. They are listed as being hardy in zone 6, but I stress this is only in a protected spot with great drainage. The ascending stems will bear showy flower bracts come early spring (flowers are formed on last year’s stems), but that is only if they do not get blasted by arctic winds.  Plants may not die, but the top growth will need to be cut back hard. The plants will break ground with new foliage growth in the spring.

There are many evergreen Euphorbia native to the Mediterranean  which are hardy to zones 7-8.  We are in zone 6B (I won’t say 7 yet).  I think with climate change upon us, we may soon be able to grow more Euphorbia species here in Southern New England.

Please share which persistent perennials you have in your garden.

Amaryllis and their Aftercare

Amaryllis ‘Wedding Dance’

So you’ve purchased or were given a gorgeous Amaryllis, and you love it. Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) are fabulous winter bloomers from the southern hemisphere. There are many species and cultivars and they can be bold and showy or delicate and ethereal. The long lasting flowers can show off for several weeks, and top size bulbs can produce multiple stems.

Amaryllis ‘Evergreen’, with smaller spidery flowers

The big question is: What should you do with your Amaryllis after the holidays to keep these plants happy and encourage them to bloom in the future?  Here are some tips.

  1. When the last flowers fade, remove the flowering stem(s). Do not let seeds form, as this will draw strength from the bulb and may inhibit flowering.
  2. Leave the green strap-like foliage on the plant to provide nourishment to the bulb and continue to give it bright light. Once warm weather arrives, you can put your plants outdoors in a spot that gets morning sun. Water only as needed. Your bulbs should be in a well drained soil mix. Do not keep soil constantly wet.

    Be sure to leave the upper third of the bulb above the soil line when you pot up.

  3. In mid-late summer (August) introduce your plants to dormancy.  They need a 2-3 month period of darkness and cool 45-50F temperatures, and during this spell, withhold water.  This is the challenging part: some of us have basements that remain dark and cool, but most of us do not.  Another option is to use your refrigerator, and this is where a spare fridge is handy.  Place the potted Amaryllis inside, minus any dead foliage.  Or, unpot your Amaryllis bulb, cut off any greenery and place in a bag with some wood shavings or dry sterile potting soil and leave to chill for at least 6-8 weeks.  In mid-late October, remove your bulbs out of their chill cycle, pot them up using a well drained soil mix and water once. Move into a sunny warm spot and do not water again until you see signs of green shooting. Sometimes it takes awhile to wake up the bulbs. Bottom heat can help.

More tips:

4. The choicest varieties need to be purchased from reputable bulb vendors in the fall.  If you want blossoms in time for the December holidays, choose bulbs that have the distinction that they were grown in the southern hemisphere, rather than having been imported from northern regions such as the Netherlands. Give yourself 6- 8 weeks lead time.  Often, these southern hemisphere grown bulbs will be labeled specifically as “Christmas Amaryllis”. Bulbs imported from Northern Europe will still bloom this winter, but they take longer to come into flower. No worries…it’s still delightful to have them burst into bloom in midwinter!

5. After the big chill, be sure to pot up in a sterile, well drained potting mix with the top third of the bulb above the soil surface.  Use a pot that’s only 2-3″ wider than your bulb(s). You could plant multiple bulbs in a large pot for a dramatic display but pack tightly, and a large container will require ample space in a sunny spot to grow on. Remember Amaryllis bulbs do not mind being pot bound. It may be 3-4 years  before it is necessary to move up into bigger pots, and/or divide.

 

 

 

 

Winter Wreaths: Thoughts and Tips

A 26″+ diameter wreath featuring selections of Elkhorn Cedar, Hinoki Cypress, Korean Arborvitae and Curly Willow.

I purposely titled this post Winter Wreaths, not  “Christmas” Wreaths. This isn’t a political statement but a simple acknowledgment that Winter Wreaths have pagan roots. At the Winter Solstice, the early Northern Europeans created wreaths to symbolize the circular rhythm of the seasons. Winter wreaths made from freshly cut greens will last well into February. There’s no need for red bows and Christmas tucks when you use beautiful plant material.

Detail of a wreath featuring Elkhorn Cedar, Cryptomeria and Hinoki Cypress.

Wreath making is a family tradition worth keeping. For years now, I’ve offered “The Day after Thanksgiving”  Wreath Making Workshop here at Avant Gardens (an alternative to mall shopping) using cuttings and branches gathered from our garden and nursery. Of course it helps that the many conifers we planted years ago have matured to give us ample material to work with (and I’m able to get in some much needed pruning at the same time!).

Many Hinoki Cypress branches in various shades of gold and green, some bearing delightful cones. (Note the leaf undersides facing up.)

So what are some of my favorite conifers to work with?  Early on I learned that Spruce and Fir, often used in commercial wreath production, did not prosper here in southern New England;  both prefer cooler summer climates. However, the many selections of Cedar do thrive: Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa cv.), Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), Korean Arborvitae (Thuja koraiensis glauca prostrata) and Elkhorn Cedar (Thujopsis dolobrata)  offer a variety of texture in shades of gold to darkest green. If you live in warm winter climates, you  have different options…I want to make a wreath using various  asparagus ferns and semi tropical evergreens.

Notice I placed some of the conifer branches so that the back side faces up...it reveals a delicate tracery, and a lovely silver color in the case of Korean Arborvitae and Elkhorn cedar.   Last year our native red cedar, Juniperus virginiana had an amazing blue berry set. Alas, this year was disappointing; there was no fruit to speak of and I worry about the poor birds who relish them. What will they feed on instead?

A wire box wreath form is covered with moss plus gathered dried fern leaves to create the base.

Our holly cultivars regularly produce a great berry set thanks to our pollinating bees. We grow ‘Blue Princess’ (Ilex x meserve cv) and  the smaller leaved Ilex x pernyi ‘Dr. Kassab’.  We have the native American Holly in the woods  at the back of our property, but they are a tad more prickly. I also use other broadleaf evergreens such as Boxwood, Inkberry, Laurel, Andromeda and even Ivy, but take note. Broadleaved evergreens desiccate quickly, especially indoors. To compensate I use a wreath base wrapped with moist sphagnum moss. Keep the moss hydrated and your holly wreath will stay fresh much longer.

Working clockwise, bunches of branches and stems bound on using 22 gauge wire. It is important to pull the wire tight as you work.

More and more people are finding the informality of foraged plant  material preferable.  Use woody plant stems with a wilder character, such as curly willow, rose hips, winterberry, or various colored osier dogwoods.  Search for moss and lichen covered twigs that may have fallen to the ground after a windstorm. Collect dried grasses and seed pods to add a variety of textures.

Let it be wild. Resist the urge to make your wreath too balanced and neat.

if you haven’t done so already, and are inspired, take a walk about your property to see what branches you can gather. Don’t hesitate to experiment; that’s what wakens your inner child and makes your wreath an original.

Note:  Please, do not harvest greens and cuttings from public spaces or private property without permission.

For winter: Arum italicum ‘Pamela Harper’

Look who’s popping up in one  of our shady corners, on cue, in mid October.  This Ellen Hornig selection of Spotted Arum (named for the wonderful gardener, Pamela Harper)  has stunning white marbled foliage edged in dark green throughout the winter, even when temperatures dip well below freezing.  It does send up a flower spathe in spring, which will be followed by orange  fruit that encases the seeds. The foliage is summer dormant, so you may forget that it’s in your garden until fall arrives when once again the new growth emerges.

Arum italicum ‘Pamela Harper’ is hardy in zones 5a-10. It prefers well drained soil in dappled shade.  Foliage height is 6-10″ tall. Not especially fast growing for us in a northern climate, but the bulbous roots produce little offsets which can be lifted and divided to spread about your garden.

Do note that all parts of this plant are poisonous.

Buy online.

 

The Forgotten Hellebore

No, I’m not referring to the legendary Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger. I am suggesting that this lovely winter bloomer, Helleborus foetidus (pictured above), should be more widely grown. Unfortunately its specific name is Latin for “foul smelling”, and thus is commonly called Stinking Hellebore. Take note, in case you are already prejudiced, that I have never detected a smell, foul or otherwise.

What Helleborus foetidus does offer are lovely clusters of celadon green  bells sometimes as early as late fall or early winter. The flowers begin forming in November, and emerge on caulescent stems above dissected dark green foliage. Unlike the familiar Lenten Rose hybrids (Helleborus orientalis), these babies bloom on past season’s growth. A mild start to winter will encourage H. foetidus to flower away on the shortest days. If more frigid temperatures take hold, no harm is done; the blooming picks up again at winter’s end. Once the flowers set seed, the branched stems die and then need to be cut back. This encourages a surge of fresh new foliar growth.

You may ask why this plant is often overlooked. Blame its common name, perhaps, but it is not a patented and cloned variety; you need to grow this species hellebore from seed.  It is perfectly hardy in zones 5-9, is easy to grow in either sun or shade in a well-drained soil, and in our garden it self sows, always in the right spot. I don’t consider this tendency to be a nuisance, but a good thing. Helleborus foetidus is not extremely long lived, and its seedlings insure future plants.

So here we have a perennial that blooms when little else does, grows in sun or shade, is deer resistant, with flowers that are visited by the earliest foraging bees.  Is it time to add this forgotten Hellebore to your winter garden?

 

Holiday decor in the time of Covid

Amaryllis ‘Wedding Dance’ and Begonias with cut greens and lights

Yep, this year is different. Fear of Covid has canceled holiday gatherings, and the urge to go all out with decorating is met by some with the question, “should I bother?” The answer is yes, even if it must be simple. This year, we absolutely need to illuminate the long nights with strings of lights and candles, but maybe we can take a break from lugging boxes of Christmas ornaments from the attic. (The thought of putting it all away is a chore no one relishes!) Instead,  we’ll focus on bringing nature indoors with decor that is  gathered from the garden and (lucky us) , the greenhouse.

Succulents in shades of red, green and white sit on a tray with gathered moss. Even the Aloes have festive names: the tiny one in the foreground is ‘Christmas Sleigh’, just behind it is  Aloe ‘Blizzard’, with blue green Echeveria setosa dimunata flanking on either side.

a brilliant Guzmania with red spikemoss

fresh evergreen wreath cut from conifers in the garden.

So, yes to winter wreaths on doorways, garlands, and arrangements of cut branches with pine cones. Yes to forced pots of Amaryllis, Christmas roses and red and green leaved Begonia. We may bring in a potted evergreen from the nursery and simply dress it with lights. Some classic holiday music will set the mood, along with the scent of cookies baking in the oven.

catch early morning light in the garden

a fire brings light and warmth

a fire brings light and warmth to end the day

This may be the year when we can’t physically gather with friends and family, but we can find peace and hope in nature’s gifts. Be outside as much as possible: take an early morning walk to catch the bird song or build a fire at dusk. Perhaps these simple ways of acknowledging the season,  more akin to the ancient winter festivals of northern Europe, will become a new tradition.

bottom lighting sets off this white Amaryllis

Peace and joy to you all!

Stay well!

Heptacodium miconoides

Our theory is, if a plant looks fantastic in the September garden, it merits attention. And if it is attractive to pollinators, has winter interest, grows quickly to a reasonable size and is easy to keep happy, then you should absolutely consider finding a spot for it. As I was driving though our little town of Dartmouth the other day, I had to pull over when I saw a picture perfect candidate of such a plant, Heptacodium miconoides, gracing a small streetside garden.

Heptacodium miconoides, or “Seven Son Flower” is relatively new in cultivation here in the US, having come ashore from China in the 1980’s. It bears attractive green foliage, resembling peach leaves, and finally in late summer and early fall, it produces panicles of fragrant, jasmine scented white flowers, which last for a couple of weeks, after which showy rosy red bracts remain. The common name “Seven Son Flower” refers to the 7 branches of blossoms of each panicle. We acquired our first specimen as a plant dividend at the Arnold Arboretum’s Fall Plant Sale in 1989. To our delight, it grew quite quickly, putting on as much as 3′ in a season. We learned after a bit that Heptacodium wants to be a multi stemmed shrub, unless pruned to one or several strong leaders. Our preference was to show off the handsome exfoliating bark, so we removed all but the strongest 3 trunks. If you would prefer to have a single trunk, select a young plant and stake one stem for straight growth.

Heptacodium merits attention for its adaptability to a variety of soil conditions, including soils that remain dry for some time, although occasional supplemental watering wouldn’t hurt. It is tolerant of salt spray, making it useful near the seashore. Other big plusses: Heptacodium is deer resistant, and the butterflies and bees absolutely love the blossoms. Provide it with lots of sunshine. Pruned as a small tree it can be the focal point of a small garden, or planted en masse it would make a showy hedge. It’s perfectly hardy in zones 5-8.

 

Growing and Forcing Witch Hazel

Hamamelis x ‘Feuerzauber’

Hamamelis x intermedia commonly known as Witch Hazel is one of the first shrubs to come into bloom in cold winter climates. We usually see our first flashes of color in February,  but some gardeners were reporting that they were seeing blooms even earlier this year. Often you first  realize they are in bloom when a waft of their sweet fragrance fills the air. 

closeup

Witch Hazels set their flower buds during the previous year’s growing season.  Outdoors, once plants have experienced a 6-8 week cold spell followed by some mild moist weather, the spidery flowers will begin to open. It is after this cold stretch that you can begin to cut branches for forcing. If you have a nice big plant in your garden, why not sacrifice a few budded stems for indoor arrangements? Simply take your cuttings, splitting the stem at the base for better water intake, put the branches in a vase with warm water and wait a few days. 

Hamamelis x ‘Arnold’s Promise’

If you are thinking about adding Witch Hazel to your garden, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Give plants room.  Slow growing at first, Hamamelis can get quite large with age. Expect plants to grow 8-10’ or taller and 10-12’ wide. They enjoy full sun or partial shade, and well-drained soil.
  2. Winter food for bees. Honeybees will seek out their blossoms on those occasional late winter/early spring warm days in the 50’s.
  3. Flower buds form in summer. If you cut back plants in summer and fall, you will sacrifice next year’s blossoms. 
  4. These winter blooming varieties are hybrids of the Japanese (H. japonicus)  and Chinese  (H. mollis) forms, and are grafted on native Hamamelis rootstock. Sometimes strong branches will break below the graft, and you might notice, in autumn, that these branches will bear yellow flowers of Hamamelis virginiana. We strongly recommend removing the branches that break below the graft because the fall blooming native plants are more vigorous and may overwhelm your winter blooming stock.

    Hamamelis x ‘Jelena’

  5.  Hamamelis x intermedia hybrids, grow well in sun or partial shade, and  in well drained soil.  ‘Arnold’s Promise is a classic cultivar with fragrant lemon yellow blossoms.  ‘Diana’ has orange red blossoms, and ‘Jelena has amber to orange spidery petals. All develop nice fall foliage colors. Create a little vignette by underplanting with Hellebores and early  flowering bulbs like Snowdrops, Crocus and early Narcissus.

Buy Hamamelis online

Hygge…& Celebrating Winter’s Gifts

chokecherries2

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?