The winter garden

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As winter weather settles in and the gardens are put to bed, a gardener’s thoughts turn to next year. Next year, I’ll try vegetables in containers. Next year, I’ll plant a shade garden. Next year, my garden will look better in winter. Start now, and your garden will look better next winter.

Winter gardens can admittedly look somewhat sparse. Annuals have died or been pulled; perennials have succumbed to multiple freezes; deciduous shrubs and trees are nothing but bare branches. But with some fine-tuning, the winter garden can have form, structure, and color when the landscape is barren.

Plantings of evergreen shrubs, vines, and perennials provide year-round garden interest once they’re established. Some of our most-beloved East Texas shrubs are evergreen – hollies, camellias, and many azaleas. Add garden staples like boxwood and loropetalum for a pleasing winter landscape. If you’re more adventurous, look for uncommon evergreen shrubs. My favorites include winter honeysuckle (with blue-green leaves and sweet-smelling blooms from December through March); leatherleaf mahonia (with spiky leaves reminiscent of holly and yellow winter blooms); and distylium (with dark green glossy leaves and small red flowers). And evergreen doesn’t necessarily mean green. Loropetalum has deep burgundy foliage that can be left natural or sheared into a hedge; Florida anise has varieties with gold or variegated leaves; and pineapple guava’s foliage is a pleasing olive green backed with gray.

Two native vines are standouts during our winters: coral honeysuckle and cross vine. On a trellis or fence, these can provide a backdrop to other garden treasures much in the way that shrubs can.

Don’t overlook evergreen perennials in your beds for winter. Evergreen perennials that do well in East Texas gardens include cast iron plants, with deep green, spear-shaped leaves; and hellebores, with palmate leaves and winter flowers. Several evergreen ferns thrive in East Texas, such as autumn fern, holly fern, and the native Christmas fern, and will add both texture and color to the winter landscape.

Evergreens aren’t the only way to provide winter interest in a garden. Once a tree or shrub has dropped its leaves, its bark takes center stage, whether by color or texture. I believe there is nothing more beautiful than the taupe and cinnamon bark on the trunk of a Natchez crape myrtle (it’s the reason I bought one); other varieties have attractive bark as well. Similarly, river birches have amazing exfoliating bark, as do oak leaf hydrangeas. There’s a group of Japanese maples called coral bark maples with bark that turns a vivid coral to scarlet in the winter. The young stems of Virginia sweetspire ‘Henry’s garnet’ are a stunning maroon in winter. Be mindful in the placement of these plants – the red stems can be lost in front of a red brick wall.

There’s one other garden element to provide winter interest: garden art. A bottle tree sparkles year-round. Statuary that is lost in the summer months can steal the show in the winter. Showcase the beauty of a birdbath or a statue by positioning it in front of an evergreen shrub or a clump of cast iron plant. Your winter focal point will be complete!

If you’re designing a new bed, it’s fairly straightforward to plan for winter interest – for example, include evergreens as a backdrop to your border, or in the center of your bed. In an existing bed, use this time of year to determine where you need some winter focus. Consider replacing some of your Southern wood ferns with autumn or holly ferns, or interspersing your hosta with hellebore. Replace that rose of Sharon with a loropetalum. These small changes will make winter more interesting in your East Texas garden.

About the author: Lin is a Texas Master Gardener in Wood County. Email her at txgardengal@gmail.com for a list of all of her favorite gardening books. Join her and other volunteers each Wednesday morning at 9, at the Quitman Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.

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