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Gardening Column
by Marjorie Harris
November 29, 1998

When people start whining about how dull the winter garden is I feel a bit smug. After about fifteen years of moving plants about my garden now looks great in winter.

I keep trying things out and changing my mind. For instance having tiny little evergreen plants seemed like a good idea many years ago. I got all the traditional ones juniper, Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star' a charming little (40cm) plant that I had combined with the intensely blue ornamental grass Helictotrichon sempervivens.. Well this little combo was dismantled last year mainly because I got tired of it. It's okay to feel like this in gardening.

Nothing is written in stone and mind changing is one of the essentials that keep the whole process extremely lively and the gardener constantly on the alert for fresh ideas.

I tucked the grass in beside a subtle variegated sage, Salvia officinalis ‘Variegata' which was a wonderful combination and looks good even this late in the year. There's Hosta ‘Ginko Craig' and some amazing yellow grasses nearby.

This is a truly animated corner of the garden and, thank goodness, close to a place to sit and wallow in admiration.

Normally I get cheesed off if people come into the garden and start sentences with "Why don't you...." There is one exception, however, and that's Ann Milovsoroff, landscape architect with the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton.

She's got an eye for the poetry of the garden that makes whatever she suggests worth considering seriously. When she visits I get ready to move and add. One year she said I had to have a really dark yew to back the coral bark maple, Acer palmatum ‘Sengo-Kaku'. She was absolutely right. A few years later both plants are looking like the perfectly matched pair. I can spend a lot of time staring at them.

This year I found a new grass, very blue with gorgeous seed heads of an almost steel-like sheen and planted it nearby. Good, said Ann, but you need a pencil thin blue juniper beyond these plants to give more depth to this whole border and draw the eye further into the garden.

Well, off to market and to look for the perfect thin juniper. It turned out to be J. virginiana ‘Blue Arrow'. It's now in place looking particularly regal. I would never have thought about this myself because junipers are such a cliche and normally used so badly. You know: one pointy juniper as a foundation planting at the edge of the border or the house. It just ruins good plants having them over-used or improperly placed. I was wrong to be so influenced this way.

Yews on the other hand strike me as being incredibly useful in our climate. This is another group of shrubs poorly served by being used as foundation plants, or sheared into graceless forms. I leave them to find their own shape.

They are dense, glossy, highly sensual plants. I have two forms: Taxus x media ‘Hicksii', a bit like the good old-fashioned English yew, which has been covered with brilliant red berries for some time now; and T. x m.‘Hillsii'.

They each give a strong winter structure to their respective borders. New this year is a holly. I've always been leery of this plant. I felt it was not quite right for such an informal garden. Again I was wrong. I got Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Princess' planted it in a spot that was hidden behind towering asters, goldenrod and Buddleia ‘Lochinch'. It's just now starting to show its inherent loveliness. This is also an area with lots of silver and one serves the other very well making each appear to be more intense.

This buddleia has been one of the great performers of the year. It bloomed for months with regular deadheading, attracted all sorts of butterflies, bees and moths and still looks utterly charming with its gray foliage pretty much intact. I've found it extremely hardy and it shouldn't be cut back until spring.

Ornamental grasses are everywhere in this garden. The more I see, the more I want. Watching the seed heads move in the wind is one of the pleasures of just gazing out the window these days. Some of the heads are bright red, others a rusty silk, even others are golden or blue. A garden without grasses is poor indeed..

Then there are the small treasures of the winter garden - the evergreen perennials. The berm is covered with ginger, both Asarum canadensis and A. europeum (a very glossy heart-shaped leaf); Bergenia cordifolia which turns a slightly burnished copper as the winter drags on, and last, but hardly least, the hellebores. I know they'll be the first to bloom in spring but right now stiffly textured deeply notched leaves are taking a place of prominence.

The garden, soon to be stripped of leaves, is a fantastic place this time of year. It has an array of foliage and colour that's fulsome enough to keep me going all winter long..

Marjorie Harris is Editor-in-Chief of Gardening Life; her most recent book is Pocket Gardening (HarperCollins).

199 Albany Avenue, Toronto, Ont. M5R 3C7 fax: 416-531-3774 phone: 531-3774 Marjorie Harris is working on a social history of native plants of Canada and the United States. this is the end

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