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The Garden In Winter Part 2
by Jodi DeLong
by Jodi DeLong


Writing about plants and gardening is just one part of Jodi¹s professional writing business. She¹s been a garden columnist for the Atlantic Co-operator for over five years, and last year was invited to do a biweekly column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Canada¹s oldest independent daily newspaper. In addition, she writes regular garden features for Saltscapes magazine, Manitoba Co-operator, Grainews, Rural Delivery, and has also had various feature articles in Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, Complete Canadian Gardener, Aquascapes Lifestyles, and East Coast Gardener. Jodi sits on the National Board of Directors for PWAC, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, as Atlantic Regional Director, and is also a member of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. When she¹s not writing, she¹s gardening, reading about gardening, photographing gardens, thinking about gardening, or ignoring the housework.

March 30, 2003

As I wrote in the first part of this article, my husband and I first visited the house that would become our home on a cold, bleak, blustery, February afternoon. A typical frigid breeze was screaming in from the Bay of Fundy, swirling the then-minimal snow cover around our feet as we walked the property. We observed the bones of gardens, where seedheads and stalks of plants stood, punctuation-marks on an otherwise flat plane of sleeping garden. We identified seedheads of coneflower, sedum, annual poppies, hollyhocks. We admired evergreens in various hues, from deep black-green of yews to emerald cedars. Birch trees with silver bark huddled together for warmth, while several young willows, their limbs and twigs not yet the fluorescent yellow green they would soon take on, conducted a symphony to the wind. We guessed at some of the shrubs and clumps of faded perennials, imagined what we could do with the potential gardening spaces, and decided to buy the place before we had even been inside the doors. The winter garden's appeal sold the place for us.

Many of us who cope with the vagaries of an Atlantic Canada winter probably think that our winter gardening activities must consist only of reading gardening magazines and seed catalogues, watering our houseplants, and waiting for spring. But gardening can be enjoyed through all seasons. While you don't want to be trying to plant shrubs, herbs, perennials, or flowers out of doors during winter - not even 'snow peas' - there are many plants which give great winter interest and offer a relief from the sometimes interminable bleakness of the season.

The sleeping beauty of a winter garden reveals its "bones" or shape for the whole year. We can see the shape of beds, the lattice of shrub twigs, perennial stems and seedheads, and the strong lines of trees. These shapes offer reference points if we're planning to change or add to a garden bed. The winter garden can be as changing as the summer one. From the austere russets, golds, and browns of a late fall scene, to the soft sculptures after a new snowfall, to the crystal perfection of plants encased in ice, there are scenes to enchant and soothe the gardener's soul. Although ice storms can be damaging to the limbs of trees and shrubs, the beauty of a hardwood sheathed in crystal on a sunny morning is hard to resist.

Of course, many shrubs offer winter interest, from those with colourful twigs to the evergreens to the brilliant hips that form on many rosebushes. We're all familiar with the role that conifers play in relieving the gardener's green-starved eyes in winter, but don't think that they come in only green. There are evergreens with blue-tinged needles such as Colorado blue spruce, golden-tinged and even variegated foliage such as those found on some of the cedars and arborvitae, and junipers that have tints of purple. Even some of the more mundane evergreens are useful for winter gardening. I tolerate a collection of unexciting, foundation planted evergreens - several yews, junipers and cedars - outside one part of our house, because during the Christmas season they look wonderful with coloured lights peeking up through the snow.

Beyond the conifers with their needle-like foliage, there are many shrubs which are evergreen and have true leaves, such as many rhododendrons, azaleas, heaths and heathers. Even some of the herbs we enjoy in our gardens, such as lavender, sage, and some of the thymes, will retain their foliage through the winter season. However, some of these plants are sensitive to cold, and should be mulched for protection once there has been a hard freeze.

Other shrubs not only have evergreen tendencies, they produce wonderful berries which hold through the winter, unless eaten by our feathered friends. Try cotoneasters (Cotoneaster spp.), which can vary in shape from creeping groundcovers to large bushes with arching sprays of branches. Most produce berries in shades of red. A favourite of many gardeners are the hollies, Ilex species, but if you want berries remember that you need both a male and a female plant. Bittersweet vines (Celastrus scandens or C. obiculatus) produce spectacular shows of red-orange berries which are very attractive to birds, but care must be taken that your bittersweet doesn't attempt to overrun a smaller space. The humble cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) has foliage that turns as richly coloured as its fruit during winter, and sprigs of the vines are wonderful in holiday table arrangements and wreaths.

A number of shrubs that lose their leaves after a spectacular fall show still are attractive because of their shapes or the colour of their twigs. Several of the dogwoods (Cornus spp.) have gorgeous red or coral twigs, and at least one boasts brilliant yellow twigs. Dogwoods tend to be fast growing and easy to care for, unless you're venturing into the more tender flowering trees such as weeping Chinese dogwood. Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, Corylus avellana 'Contorta', is a unique shrub offering great interest because its shoots curl and twist like corkscrews. When the catkins emerge in spring, every twig is decorated with a golden tassel.

There are numerous perennials that hold their seedheads well into winter. While the actual seeds may already be gone, having been tasty snacks for the over wintering birds, the attractive heads left behind provide interest. In our back garden last year, a host of teasels, some more than six feet tall, kept their bristly seedheads until we finally pulled the plants in early spring. When freezing rain visited, the teasels became works of art. Other perennials which bear up to much of winter's blast include coneflowers (Echinacea and Rudbeckia species), sedums such as Sedum "Autumn Joy", and Russian sage, Perovskia.

A wide variety of perennials also retain their foliage throughout the year, and these can be very attractive in late fall before snow covers the ground. Groundcovers including Bugleweed (Ajuga species) Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) and barrenwort (Epimedium) offer colour, in addition to their carpeting tendencies. Other perennials which remain evergreen include Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), bergenias, and coral bells (Heuchera spp.), the latter offering a host of foliage shades, including maroon, silver, amber, and mint green.

Ornamental grasses are gaining in popularity, which again offer four season interest with their sometimes spectacular seedheads, and foliage which dries to a tawny gold. Grasses tend to be inexpensive, require little care, and work well in mixed plantings, although care must be taken that you don't plant a tall one near the front of a bed. As an added bonus, for those gardeners who are also birding enthusiasts, many grasses provide food and shelter to over wintering songbirds.

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