My idea of a decent garden guarantees lots of visual diversity with little surprises tucked ’round every corner. This kind of variety requires quite an assortment of plants. The fuel which fires my enthusiasm for gardening is that continuing search and anticipated discovery of a new plant that can promise at least three seasons of visual delight. With the spring planting season finally arriving, it is a good time to add to your collection at least one plant that brings some new dimension. Buying a few new plants always provides that additional motivating factor to go out and get digging again. No matter what plant gets added to my garden it prompts a new focus of attention and that always has a positive affect on my disposition. Each gardener surely has their ever changing list of favorites. If one wanders my garden you can quickly discover a few probably overused favorites that many might consider pesky. Each to their own.
I’m plant passionate about a few winter jewels that shine all season. Most are treasured for their foliage, bark, shape or seasonal durability. Without flowers to divert the senses these other attributes capture your attention.
For a winter ground covering in the flower border, I’m partial to a purple black ajuga, ‘Bronze Beauty,’ because it recovers so quickly from having 10″ of snow dumped on it every three or four weeks. Another multi-colored ajuga, ‘Burgundy Glow’ is almost a day-glo fuchsia right now but it has not propagated well and seems to be reverting back to the other type. Ajugas sometimes self-seed so it’s hard to tell what may have happened. As far as flowers, the dark leaf has a taller, longer lasting and deeper blue flower with the blooms coming in early spring about the same time as the azaleas. I’m always surprised that it manages to survive being smothered all summer by nearby leafy perennials. Another exciting groundcover slowly spreading itself around is a black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Arabicus’. No flower to speak of just pure black leaves, similar to liriope but smaller and not as prolific a spreader. Its black leaves are especially striking next to emerald moss in late February even with all that ivy creeping into its space. Fuzzy silver lamb’s ears next to this grass creates a contrast that jumps. Lamb’s ears certainly doesn’t thrive in shade as does the mondo but both will prosper if given morning sun. Few silvery grey plants like shade as they are specifically designed to withstand full sun. If you grow lamb’s ears, Stachys byzantina in a sunny part of your yard you’ll quickly need to thin its spread. When faced with where to put all those thinnings you may want to try some shady areas.
Herbs were some of the first plants I ever tried to grow. Because of these plants my garden smells wonderful even in winter. Many remain respectable all winter given good drainage-sage, thyme, lavender.
Ornamental grasses have done well enough in my yard to earn new locations. Miscanthus tops the list for its height, movement and golden winter hue. Most specimens in the grass family need little if any care. There’s two more variegated beauties: A striped sweet flag, Acorus gramineus ‘Variegatus’ that many think of as only a pond or marsh grass does fine even in my dry shade. It seems totally unaffected by weather and expands in an interesting semi-circular fashion. Another clump – forming shade lover that also looks well all winter is variegated sedge grass, Carex morrowii. Both of these require no special care except to make sure the nearby traveling ivy doesn’t strangle them. Two silver blue and spiky grasses that also deserve mention are: Blue Oat Grass, Helictotrichon, and Blue fescue, Festuca ovina var. glauca. Don’t cut any of these back except the miscanthus.
As for shrubs a red twig, variegated leaf dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ has given me lots of enjoyment this winter. It’s nice positioned with a evergreen culinary sage, a lavender or Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ growing under and through its branches and very pretty coming up through the snow. Nandina is another excellent winter foliage plant-leaves range from scarlet to deep burgundy depending on variety. They are usually full of berries in other people’s yards. Mine are eaten up before fall’s end.
Evergreen shrubs and trees give the garden structure. They can define the boundaries and enclose a space. A canopy of pruned up Pines or Cedars changes the feel of any garden path. The enclosure redirects one’s attention to create a quiet safe retreat. Junipers, red cedars and native scrub pines are my favorite enclosures because nothing else has grown fast enough or as well. In addition to their scent they provide food and shelter for birds. In the mixed border garden a dark green swirled hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa is a really fine looking tree. Four 8″ plants marked var. nana gracilis planted four years ago now range from 4′ to 6′ tall. That makes them much bigger than the ‘described’ maximum height of 2-3′. One can’t always trust the labels.
Broad-leafed evergreens; mahonias, rhododrendrum, azaleas; do not grow well enough in my soil to get a favorable review. Amendments and wind protection would surely correct that but each will require more time to tell results. Old English Box from my family’s home in Delaware fares the best of all but these are only 2 feet tall after 20 years! Their scent is a welcome reminder of another time. Now several cuttings have rooted and are growing at the rate of about 1″ per year! My yard’s still wanting a good holly to write about but the mahonias are ready to bloom for the first time.
In winter another red twigged beauty is the Japanese maple tree. My red leafed varieties are all pretty small yet-less than 8′- and their branches are smooth, glossy and dark red. These small trees are available in all sorts of varieties. The best place to see your choices is a good nursery, arboretum or a look at the newest March issue of Horticulture. In an article by Bob Hyland, 12 varieties hardy to our area are featured with accompanying photos including descriptions as to name and special attributes. Though most are a bit pricey they are treasures and worth their cost. For the townhouse gardener who needs to select smaller specimens trees these are a good choice.
Surely as my garden grows so will my knowledge of plants to add to my garden. Every spring new specimens are tucked in with the hope of having found a new all season favorite. Perhaps this spring you too will find just the right plant that will bring joy to your home gardens or even your window sill. If you do not have a yard do not despair, for many years all my growing was in pots on balconies or in window sills. I remember asking, “and which direction do the windows face?”