Merry and bright: Creating a colorful garden in winter’s darker days

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Camellia Camellia

Deck the garden with half a dozen stars to ornament the darkest days of winter. In the pared-down landscape between first and last freezes, when contrasts are sharp, displays of flower, form and color take on a significance lost in the lushness of summer. If you don’t already have these beauties in your lineup, add them to your New Year’s list for spring and fall planting.

Camellia

Immigrants from China and doyens of old Virginia gardens, these long-lived evergreen shrubs thrive in shady spots near buildings and beneath pine or mixed wood canopies as long as they have shelter from wind and protection from deer. Flowering in late winter, spring and fall, camellias have glossy evergreen leaves that shine in winter sun. Give them the same acidic soil, good drainage and moist conditions azaleas prefer and they will produce amazing silky blossoms ranging from blood-red and golden-white to candy-striped pink. Fall-blooming camellia sasanqua takes more sun and can be clipped as a hedge, but C. japonica, which blooms in late winter, should be given ample room to express itself (10-15’x6-10′).

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

A native evergreen fern, deer-resistant and hardy on lean slopes, this ironclad perennial can hold a bank in a mass planting or serve as an elegant accent along paths and at entries. Good for deep shade and beautiful with stonework, it’s also ideal for woodland habitats with acid soil rich in rotted leaves and humus. Combine the Christmas fern with snowdrops and Hellebores.

Hellebore

A varied group of dependable, deer-proof evergreen perennials from Asia with strong foliar texture and very early showy flowers, they tolerate deep shade as well as dappled but will burn in hot sun. Lenten roses (H. niger and hybrids like Pine Knot) have large bell-shaped flowers in shades of cream, purple and pale green, often mottled on nodding stalks although some hybrids feature upward-facing blooms. They make long-lived clumps 1 1/2′ all around. Bear’s foot (H. foetidus) are the most arresting, reaching over 2 1/2′ tall with vivid chartreuse Dr. Seuss-like flowers. Because of their heavy presence and distinctive textures and colors, do not mix varieties; use in masses under trees like crapemyrtles and along pathways with stonework and brick.

Magnolia

Unless you are Scarlett O’Hara, you probably don’t have room for a southern magnolia (M. grandiflora), which can max out at over 60’x40′, but hybrid Little Gem gives the same scented flowers and patent-leather leaves on a smaller scale (20′). Use as a hedge or specimen by a walk or entry where scent and flowers can be closely experienced. Deciduous Asian forms like M. stellata have smaller cultivars like Waterlily and Royal Star that stay at 10-15′ and show fuzzy gray buds on silvery twigs through winter. Place them like a sculpture. Their papery pink-white blooms flutter in the cold air like a haiku.

Snowdrop and other minor bulbs

Nothing spangles late winter like the little bulbs. Plant them every fall, scavenging the old bins at garden centers. Most all are deer-proof and increase over the years with little attention. Scatter on the edges of lawns, borders and pathways: white snowdrops (Galanthus), purple “Tommies” (Crocus tommasinianus), electric blue Scillas or wood squills, creamy Chionodoxa (glory of the snow), pale blue Ipheon (spring starflower) and pastel Spanish hyacinths (Hyacinthoides).

Witchhazel

Like camellias, this large shrub comes in spring and fall flowering forms. Hamamelis x intermedia produces hybrids of Chinese and Japanese species: Arnold Promise, with bright golden fragrant February flowers, ruby-red Diane and rose-gold Jelena air their astringent ribbons in February and March, with buttery apricot fall color to boot. Our native H. virginiana blooms November through December. Wide-spreading, around 12’x12′, witchhazels sparkle as specimens or dotted along woodland edges in shade to full sun, preferring moist sheltered spots.

Whether you need a dependable groundcover or a spectacular focal point, plan to add one or more of these winter gems to the garden in the coming seasons.

Winter checklist

  • Clean and organize tools.
  • Drain and turn off outdoor faucets susceptible to freezing.
  • Rake existing mulch away from trunks of trees and crowns of perennials and shrubs; replace as needed to maintain no more than 2″ for  perennials, 3″ for trees and shrubs.
  • Start Amyrillis and paper white bulbs for indoor blooms.
  • Shred and compost leaves to use as soil amendment and mulch.
  • Use wire cages to protect young trees from deer rubbing.
  • Water fall-planted trees and shrubs regularly in absence of rain as long as ground is not frozen.
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