Winter Interest

A complete garden should have true four season interest (spring, summer, fall, winter). Included in this section are plants that will round out your garden in winter.

When a garden designer or landscape architect plants something in their own garden, you know they are serious. We are happy to appreciate plants in other people's gardens, but to find the plants closest to our hearts, snoop around our places. There is only so much room after all.

Evergreen clematis

The flowers are lovely, but Clematis armandii is a winner in all seasons. Click for larger.

Clematis armandii is a classic and one of my two favorite vines (the other being hops vine). It is the plant I walk under first thing in the morning and the plant I walk under last thing in the evening.

Continue reading ‘Clematis armandii’

See also: Trees and Shrubs
Gardeners in the south looking for small deciduous trees often think of dogwoods and redbuds, but Japanese stewartia can be an inspired choice in the garden. It is a small tree with beautiful flowers and foliage. Japanese stewartia functions well as an understory tree, flowering even in shady areas.

Japanese stewartia small tree for the garden.

Japanese stewartia flowers in early summer. Click for larger.

The scientific name is Stewartia pseudocamellia. The first time you see Japanese stewartia in the landscape the first instinct is to wonder why a camellia is blooming in summer. Pseudocamellia = 'false camellia'. Both camellias and stewartias are in the tea family.

The flowers are refined, 2"-3" across in single form with white petals and gold stamens. The flowers, while beautiful, are only a small part of the charm of Japanese stewartia, as its value spans all four seasons.

Continue reading ‘Japanese Stewartia’

See also: Herbaceous Perennials
I was always cool towards Hellebores orientalis (lenten rose) in the garden but my wife Angela has gradually won me over to their considerable charm. As a rule, plants that bloom in the cooler months (camellias, pansies, and even paper bush) only make me yearn for spring. Over time I have come to appreciate the understated beauty and toughness of the unassuming Hellebores clan.

hellebores mass planting

Lenten rose mass planting at State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Click for larger view.

There are many named varieties of Hellebores and if you are the collecting type, the abundance of different available forms and colors may even rival the hostas. Like rare or new hostas, recent lenten rose introductions can by expensive. People especially seem to love the super dark lenten roses, but truthfully, the lighter colored blooms of your plain old garden variety lenten rose show in the landscape better. Continue reading ‘Hellebores orientalis (Lenten Rose) Massed’

little bluestemSee also: Native PlantsLittle bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is all around us, a grass native to much of the United States. Its value economically, environmentally, and aesthetically cannot be overstated. Cattle graze little bluestem. It settles areas prone to erosion. It is often the first plant in the process of  succession from open to pines to the hardwoods. Moisture needs are spare, meaning no supplemental watering is required. Birds eat little bluestem's seeds during the cold months when forage is sparse.

Finally, it is one of the most beautiful plants of winter.

little bluestem landscape

Little bluestem in winter.

Landscape design with little bluestem
Little bluestem is one our most valuable and tragically underused perennials. It is rarely found in garden centers…why sell something that is one of the most common plants in the American landscape? The rub in this kind of thinking is that while little bluestem may be common in the rural landscape, it is not often found in the so-called civilized parts of our urban spaces...not in our gardens. If we want to see little bluestem, we drive to the country.

Continue reading ‘Little Bluestem: American Landscape’

See also: Native Plants
Oakleaf hydrangea is my hero. There is no question landscape architects are enamored with oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).  The virtues of this native plant are numerous and yet oakleaf hydrangea has not become so saturated in its use as to become mundane.  If every landscape in every garden I walked by had oakleaf hydrangea, it would be okay.


Oakleaf hydrangea flower. Click for larger.

Here are the reasons oakleaf hydrangea is my favorite:

Continue reading ‘Oakleaf hydrangea: my favorite plant’

Pure White Camellia, 1948
Introduced in 1948, Camellia 'Morning Glow' has flowers of classic form on a plant that grows vigorously upright.  Blooms are fully double and pure white, sometimes exhibiting yellow tones.  The dark green foliage's contrast with the white flowers is what makes the plant so completely dramatic.

I typically consider Camellias a wonderful backdrop in the garden, basically ignoring the flowers.  'Morning Glow' and a new favorite, Camellia japonica 'Desire', are rapidly changing my perspective from indifference to admiration.

For some excellent tips on growing these solid evergreens, check out Joe Lamp'l.

camellia japonica morning glow

Camellia japonica 'Morning Glow'

Planting and growing oakleaf hydrangea is easy, but there is one crucial factor that will make or break your effort to grow the sublime Hydrangea quercifolia.

Assuming one doesn't plant oakleaf hydrangea in a desert, your chances of success are high.  Oakleaf hydrangea prefers neutral to acidic soil, amended with lots of pinebark or coarse material, and protection from afternoon sun.

oakleaf hydrangea containers

Oakleaf hydranges ready for fall planting.

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is, in my estimation, the perfect garden plant. Native to the American south...four season interest...easy to grow...found in relatively few gardens...blooms that last forever while aging more gracefully than most of us can dare to hope.

Oakleaf hydrangea can handle more sun than mophead or lacecap hydrangeas when established; if the goal is optimal growing conditions, forego areas with strong afternoon sun.

Your oakleaf hydrangea died.  An explanation.
In my experience the greatest killer of oakleaf hydrangea is poor drainage caused by planting too deeply.  Often, the damage is done in winter, when roots are not as active and the plant is dormant.  I suspect that many a gardener has been unpleasantly surprised when spring comes and their oakleaf hydrangea has not awoken from spring.

Plant oakleaf hydrangea a little high.
You do not have to go to the length of mounding recommended for planting rhododenron, but recognize that soil often settles after planting and adjust accordingly.

Planting oakleaf hydrangea so that the root ball is a couple of inches above soil level will do wonders for ensuring your plant thrives.
New gardeners plant too deep, when almost all garden plants (tomatoes are an exception) can benefit from being planted absolutely no deeper than the existing soil level, and in fact, just a little higher.

Camellia japonica 'Desire' - my favorite Camellia.

If you walk into a garden nursery this time of year you will see  rows of Camellias, all dark green and sparkly,  with photographs artfully dangling from limbs in an effort to show you what the bloom will look like later.  I relate this because the first time my partner Angela and I saw a bloom of Camellia japonica 'Desire' we thought it was one of those photographs…it was that perfect.

We bought the plant and almost every bloom since has emulated the first perfect moment…almost - last week we had a bloom open so slowly due to recent cold and wet weather that it exhibited what is commonly called 'balling', where a flower does not completely open.  Some fully-double old roses, peonies, and indeed Camellias are prone to balling.  Do not let one ruined flower in another's garden dissuade you from seeking out Camellia 'Desire'.

I am a little bluestem guy, not a camellia guy, but sometimes you have to acknowledge greatness where you find it.

Camellia japonica in my estimation should be chosen primarily for the dark, lustrous foliage…useful as a hedge and tremendous as a backdrop in the landscape.  Like many roses (climbing roses excepted) and salvia guaranitica, the charm of camellias is lost on me from a distance…indistinct blobs of color from street view. Camellia flowers are best appreciated up close; Camellia japonica 'Desire' is the standard by which I will judge all future camellias.

Continue reading ‘Camellia japonica ‘Desire’’

Early Returns from the Test Garden: Japanese Maple 'Bihou' made it through the winter.

Japanese Maple 'Bihou' (Acer palmatum Bihou) is impossible to resist, with bark that is soft yet glows.  But I have questions. New in the test garden is Japanese Maple 'Bihou' (a.k.a. 'Bijou'), and the promise is spectacular.  A promise kept is the only promise that matters, however.

I have never seen a plant, Japanese maple or otherwise, with bark the color of 'Bihou'…a soft peach color.  More, it is not so much the color of the bark, but the presence…a soft beacon in the landscape.

Acer palmatum 'Bihou' may provide superior winter interest, but the rest of the year is no slouch: Green leaves with reddish margins give way to fully green tones in the summer; fall brings maples to their glory, and in this 'Bihou' does keep its promise, with golds and oranges awash showy branches.

japanese maple bihou

Continue reading ‘Japanese Maple ‘Bihou’’

See also: Herbaceous Perennials
Wild ginger (Asarum splendens) is a superb, albeit slow-speading, groundcover for the shade garden.  Asarum splendens looks native (but it is not).

wild ginger - Asarum splendens

A pretty standard size for one established wild ginger (Asarum splendens), maybe 12" total. Click to view larger.

Native to China, this wild ginger is non-invasive and at home in the woodland or shade garden.  What I love most about Asarum splendens is that, like lenten rose, this wild ginger species shines in the winter garden, staying healthy and rich green even on the gloomiest days.

I grow Asarum splendens under bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora).  The bottlebrush buckeye is so dense in the growing season that the wild ginger disappears into shade so thick I am amazed any plant could live, much less prevail.  Indeed, I have seen Asarum splendens growing under stairs.

Continue reading ‘Wild Ginger – Asarum splendens’