Written for the Davis Enterprise, December 24, 2003
I've never really dealt with snow. Truth be told, I've only seen it fall from the sky three times in my entire life. When it happened in La Jolla, while I was in 6th grade, the teachers let us go outside to stare up into the sky in wonder. No, winters in San Diego are a little surreal--holiday decorations just look out of place when it's 70 degrees and sunny. And I have a picture of a shivering Chihuahua sitting forlornly in the inch or so that fell locally in 1997. While we get snow flurries on the valley floor every couple of years here, it's rare to get enough to stick.
So I don't know what it's like to have a clean, sparkling carpet of white cover your garden and landscape. Perhaps it provides finality to the garden season, blanketing all your dormant plants and gardening mistakes, and providing the stark contrast so apparent in the lovely photographs I've seen. Here, things just kind of linger and go dormant amid the fallen leaves. Of course, those who have lived with it tell me that the down side of all that snowy cleanliness is the mud and slush which follows--not to mention the biting cold.
Of course, we do have the valley fog, and there are plants that look truly haunting shrouded in mist--especially the large evergreens such as redwoods and Deodar cedars. We get occasionally frosty mornings when leaves look enchanting, and I still get a kick out of watching summer annuals turn to mush. The fields are green, and large trees can provide interesting silhouettes.
But December and January can be a dull time in the landscape without a little planning. Early in my gardening career here I planted lots of the showy spring-flowering shrubs, because they were new to me--Forsythias, Spiraeas, Philadelphus, and of course roses galore. Each winter I'd survey the muddy garden and realize that the yard needed a backbone, with particular attention to plants with bright foliage, fruit, or flowers.
This is when evergreens -- a little mundane the rest of the year -- suddenly shine. Shrubs and trees with berries and winter fruit are showy, and many attract songbirds. Variegated or light colored foliage is vivid, especially in the early twilight. Cold-loving white and light colored flowers brighten the border. In the landscape we can choose trees with interesting forms, such as twisted or weeping growth habit. Even the bark of some trees provides color and texture; Incense cedar (Libocedrus) and Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo and 'Marina') have brown and mahogany barks.
While most people think of conifers such as junipers when we say evergreens, the term refers to any shrub or tree that remains in leaf during the winter. Look for plants with clean, dense, attractive foliage. 'Old Gold' is a pretty juniper with bright golden new growth in late winter. Some resemble conifers: Coleonema (Koe-lee-oh-nee-mah) 'Sunset Gold' is a soft, needle-like shrub with bright yellow-green foliage and small pale pink flowers. Others such as rosemary have dark green, shiny foliage, with the added bonus of winter blossoms that vary from pale to vivid blue. 'Tuscan Blue' has especially showy flowers.
Plants with winter fruit.
Pyracanthas are the familiar large shrubs with red berries in the winter, but many varieties are prone to a bacterial disease (Fireblight), and the thorns are nasty. They make great barrier plants, and provide cover for field birds such as quail, but most are a little formidable for small yards. 'Leprechaun' is a nice miniature variety. Cotoneasters (Koe-toe-nee-asters) are their better-mannered thornless cousins. The Clusterberry (Cotoneaster lacteus) is a large, graceful shrub laden with vivid red berries from November on. Other Cotoneasters make great ground covers, and they all take well to pruning. Nandina--the common heavenly bamboo--suddenly comes alive after a few frosts, with orange berries and red-tinged leaves. Hollies (Ilex species) are large shrubs with attractive winter foliage. Female forms of the old-fashioned English holly have red fruit, and some hybrid types set fruit without needing a male (see 'parthenocarpic' in your botany text!).
Many other fruiting plants are showy in winter. Persimmons hang on as long as the cedar waxwings and magpies will leave them alone, with glowing orange fruit standing out against the sky. The much-maligned Tallow trees (Sapium sebiferum) have attractive snow-white fruit on the female trees, and female Chinese pistache trees have showy red fruit, which are favorites of medium-sized songbirds such as red-winged blackbirds.
Hint: when planting for berries to attract birds, the size of the fruit is proportional to the size of the birds you'll attract! Cute little songbirds can't do much with a big Nandina berry. Larger-berried plants tend to attract jays, magpies, mockingbirds, and waxwings--all fun to watch, but not necessarily what you had in mind when you set out to draw songbirds into the garden!
Parents of inquisitive children should know that some fruit are poisonous to people and pets, though they may not be to birds. Learn your plant names and ask about toxicity: you'll get a tummy ache if you eat a lot of Pyracantha berries, and Holly is quite poisonous, but Nandina is not. Pyracantha also ferments on the bush. There were once showy stands of them along Highway 50, but they were all removed because drunken pigeons kept staggering out onto the highway. Jerusalem cherry is a very pretty member of the tomato family with shiny orange-red fruit in fall and winter that look like miniature tomatoes--but don't eat them! It will reseed happily in sun or light shade, and is perfectly hardy here in spite of the limited climate zones listed in the Sunset Western Garden Book.
Plants with interesting foliage.
Variegated leaves really stands out in the winter, when the days are short and are often cloudy or foggy. Ivy can be very invasive, but variegated forms of the English ivy (Hedera helix) make great winter filler in containers and small gardens and are less vigorous than their green counterparts. The variegated form of Periwinkle (Vinca major) also functions much like the greenery in a flower arrangement, providing nice contrast to flowers or plants with solid green leaves. Both of these need shade from hot afternoon sun. Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety' can take full sun or shade, and is a very tough, spreading shrub with white margins on the leaves which tinge with pink in frosty weather.
When using winter annuals in the landscape, those with white or lighter colored blossoms will give more impact. Purples, reds, and darker tones just don't stand out enough in the lower light intensities, although they are effective in terracotta pots and on concrete patios. Particularly perky is the annual white daisy (Chrysanthemum paludosum), which forms a little shrublet of bright white flowers right through the gloomiest months. The electric colors of Cyclamen show up even on dark days. Grey foliage from Dusty miller brightens a mixed planting of winter flowers.
From the skyline to the flower border, we CAN plan for an interesting winter landscape. And the good news is the first of those flowering shrubs are just a few weeks away
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
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