How Lovely Are Thy Branches

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are thy branches.
Not only green when summer’s here
But in the coldest time of year.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are thy branches.

                                                ~ Author Unknown ~

Nothing says Yuletide quite like evergreen boughs, whether still on the tree, or as part of some other seasonal ornamentation. Almost every home at this time of year has the requisite evergreen wreath, swag, garland, or container arrangement. I myself dabble only in the latter; the seasonal container.

I didn’t always participate in this Christmas container frenzy – mixed evergreen branches billowing over the tops of pretty pots, complete with festive balls and bows. It all seemed a bit artsy-crafty to me. But I had to admit, a tasteful arrangement could enhance the overall appeal of a winter landscape. In time I learned to embrace my “inner Martha”, though I soon discovered that arranging evergreen boughs in a winter container required a different skill-set than designing a landscape, a garden, or a summer container arrangement. No this required a florist’s flair, a talent this garden designer is decidedly lacking.

My early attempts weren’t particularly spectacular – spruce and juniper branches harvested from trees and shrubs in my garden, with a few dogwood stems sprinkled in. They were a bit drab actually – not surprising since many spruce and juniper species tend to lose colour saturation in our very cold winters, becoming dark and dull. In containers their presentation is therefore lacklustre. Pine however, stays delightfully green, cedar too – I tried those, but apparently any old pine or cedar won’t do. My garden gatherings of stiff upright mugo pine branches and sprigs of Emerald Green cedar just didn’t do the trick. Something with a more draping habit was needed.

Eventually, about the 23rd of December one year, knowing we’d be entertaining family the following night, I decided I should really purchase some suitable greenery. I live only a few minutes away from several greenhouses, so off I went in search of greener greens. Fortunately, since it was so close to Christmas, everything was discounted – which also meant of course, that selection was limited. There was still some fir to be had, and one scruffy bundle of pine. A gentlemanly sales attendant scrounged up a few cedar boughs for me. I needed something taller too, for height and structure. All that was left was some twiggy, tawny-hued huckleberry branches – this would have to do I guess. I plopped my greenhouse finds into my containers, fussed with them a bit, then fussed some more. The end result was… well, acceptable.

I continued with these last-minute arrangements for a number of years – they were attractive enough, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’d found my calling. And no festive balls or bows – this was definitely still too Martha Stewart for me.

I guess we must have had mild autumn temperatures that extended well into December, or maybe very timely Chinooks, because in all those years I whipped up my eleventh-hour Christmas containers, not once was the soil in my ceramic pots frozen… until last year. This was the year I decided to shop early for Christmas greens so I’d have lots to choose from. I was like a kid in a candy store. Beautiful bunches of fir and hemlock, soft pine, lacy cedar and elegant cypress, rich red dogwood stems, pretty berried branches and crisp white birch branches – I bought it all, hundreds of dollars worth.

The plants from my summer arrangements were still in the pots, covered in snow (winter had come early) and had to be removed before I could do my holiday arrangement. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll get my trowel and quickly pop out the dead plants.”  Clunk.  Metal hit ice.  Hmmm.  “No problem,” I thought,  “I’ll get some warm water and melt the frozen soil and then with my trowel pop out the dead plants.” Scrape, scrape, scrape – the warm water thawed enough soil for me to remove about a teaspoonful. More warm water, more scraping, another teaspoonful of soil removed. This was not going to work. Hmmm. “No problem,” I thought. I went inside and got my blow-dryer. “I’ll blow hot air on the frozen soil to melt it and then with my trowel I’ll pop out the dead plants.” Whirrrrr. Whirrrrr. Whirrrrr. There I was sitting on my front steps, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up like a snow-suited child, attempting to melt a huge block of ice-soil with a blow-dryer. The neighbours must have had a good chuckle at the sight.  Unfortunately, the hot air wasn’t making any difference. My hands were freezing. Feeling foolish and very frustrated, I gave up and went inside.

“How’s it going out there?” asked my husband as I came in the front door. The look on my face answered his question. Not well. What was I going to do with all the beautiful greenery I’d purchased? There was no way those pots were coming inside to thaw – they were way too heavy. When I first bought them I was concerned that, being such pretty pots, someone might walk off with them – so I filled the bottom half with sand and gravel. Nope, nobody was going to move those babies – ever.

“I have an idea” Hubby said. I didn’t want to hear his idea. I wanted to pout and throw a hissy-fit. But I remembered what I’d always told my kids when they were young and something would go wrong: “You need to get out of flip-out mode and get into problem-solving mode,” I’d chirp. So I listened to my husband’s idea. We had some reasonably attractive plastic pots on the back patio – they were painted black but finished to look like burnished bronze. While the soil in these pots was also frozen solid, they weren’t so heavy and could easily be carried inside to thaw. It was a good idea; better than anything I had come up with.

It took at least 2 days for the soil in the plastic pots to thaw, but once it was workable I went to work poking the myriad of branches into the soil. First the birch branches for height and structure. Then the bendy cedar and cypress boughs which would drape over the edges. Then the more rigid fir and hemlock branches, and finally the dogwood stems and red-berried branches for colour. But still no festive balls or bows.

We carried the two pots outside and placed them in front of the unusable ceramic pots. They looked pretty impressive – impressively large anyways; so large that the evergreen boughs impeded access somewhat to the front door. Perhaps I’d purchased more container ingredients than I needed.

This year I got smart – I made sure I removed the summer arrangements from my containers well before freeze-up. I also removed about a third of the soil so I could add fresh topsoil in which to arrange my evergreens and accoutrements.

A few weeks ago I espied some pretty potted arrangements when driving by a large department store (which I shall not name because I don’t want to give them free advertising). What caught my eye in these holiday arrangements was, I’m embarrassed to say, the beautiful copper-coloured festive balls and bows. I couldn’t stop thinking about these lovely rich-hued ornaments and visualizing how pretty they’d look in my earthy-coloured ceramic pots against the café-au-lait colour of my house and the chocolatey colour of my front door and wrought iron railings. So I went back and bought them.

Originally the idea was to take everything out of the store-bought plastic pots and rearrange in my own pots. However, the plastic pots fit nicely into the mouth of my tear-drop-shaped containers – so there they stayed. I know, I know, for a garden designer this was shamefully lazy, cheating even. It never pays to cheat though, because the next day all the evergreens in one of the store-bought arrangements had turned brown, despite watering as directed. I returned it to the store-which-won’t-be-named, and to their credit, they happily exchanged it for one that still looked alive.

The weather turned nasty a day or two later and my holiday arrangements were soon covered in snow – it was very pretty and Christmassy, but the evergreen boughs turned suspiciously crispy in the frigid cold. I had a feeling they wouldn’t look so good when the temperatures rose again with the next Chinook. Indeed when the Arctic front blew out and a Chinook blew in, my evergreens became everbrown. Sigh. It was now past the middle of December and I was running out of time – and patience. I brought the pots inside and tried to pull out the dead stuff – they wouldn’t budge. I examined the centre of the arrangements to see what was holding everything so tight. It was florist’s foam. Very frozen florist’s foam. Sigh….

After a day or two the foam thawed. I poked some fresh pine branches and cedar boughs into it and some reddish twiggy things from an indoor vase which I bundled together to add height. My backyard containers hadn’t been cleaned out yet and still housed clumps of coppery sedge (Carex comans ‘Bronco’) – it was dead but still had some colour and made a pretty addition to my Christmas arrangement. A few sprigs of blue spruce, the copper ornaments from the store-bought pots, and my holiday containers were done. It was night-time when I placed my newly created evergreen arrangements into the ceramic pots – from what I could see in the dark they looked okay; better than the prearranged ones I’d purchased and certainly better than any of my previous attempts.

The following morning, seeing that it had snowed over night, I offered to relieve Hubbie of front-walk-shoveling duty.  My new Christmas containers were dusted in snow. The now white-capped copper ornaments sparkled in the sun.  As I moved down the walkway piling snow this way and that, I looked back towards the house and noticed that from this vantage point the black plastic pots were visible above the ceramic pots. “That looks tacky,” I said to myself. Thinking I hadn’t placed them properly, I attempted to adjust them, but to no avail. I guess the fit wasn’t as good as I thought when I first popped them in there. Sigh. My work was still not done.

I considered my options and determined they were limited. The foam was frozen again so I couldn’t just poke more drapey branches in. I thought about taking the foam out of the plastic pots and placing the whole arrangement right inside the ceramic pots, but one of the chunks of foam had split in half when I was manhandling it trying to remove dead evergreens. I was afraid without the pot to hold the foam together that everything might fall apart. I decided my best option was to drill holes through the side of the pot into the frozen foam and stick more evergreen boughs in the holes. My husband brought me his battery operated drill and showed me how to use it. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. There I was again, sitting on my front steps, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up like a snow-suited child, this time drilling holes into my pots – more entertainment for my neighbours I’m sure. I didn’t last long in the cold though, so I brought the pots inside and finished my drilling and poking in the basement. I soon became very adept with the drill, exchanging drill bits from small (to puncture the pot) to large (to fit branches in) with a few quick flicks of the wrist. That’s right, this girly girl was using power tools. For some reason Hubbie found this very amusing, attractive even.

So in the end I did create some not-too-bad looking Christmas arrangements….

Christmas container - RChristmas container - LMy latest container attempts  – I don’t have the flair of a florist, but aren’t the colours pretty?                 Photos: Sue Gaviller

So now that y’all know what not to do when creating your Christmas arrangements, it’s only fair I provide some examples of really well done containers. Deborah Silver, owner of Detroit Garden Works, creates stunning arrangements and shares some of her secrets on her blog Dirt Simple (check out her 3-part tutorial: Sticking It: A Foam Story, The Center Of Interest: A Short Story and The Details: A Story Board).

Just look at these – are they not perfect?

DS Containers 2Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 3Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 5Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 6Photo: Dirt Simple

Well folks it’s December 22nd and despite my best attempts, it seems that my Christmas containers are once again last-minute – but this time they come with festive balls and bows.

 Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night,

Barking up the Wrong Tree

They say dog is man’s best friend – well how about dogwood is gardener’s best friend? I don’t mean the graceful dogwood trees, Cornus kousa or Cornus florida  – I wish I could say I was referring to them, but sadly no, we can’t grow these lovely trees in our zone 3, chinook-challenged climate. We can however, grow some splendid cultivars of our native Cornus sericea (red osier dogwood), and the closely related Cornus alba (Tatarian dogwood). I recall a recent quip from an out-of-province industry professional in reference to these…….he snorted, “That’s a dogwood? Where I come from dogwoods are trees.” Yeah, yeah, I know – we’re horticulturally deprived here. But no need to feel sorry for ourselves – the dogwood shrubs I speak of, though not as ornamental in flower, have special characteristics that set them apart from their arboreal counterparts. Not only are they extremely hardy in our fierce climate, they have a beauty all their own and offer it up year round.

Let’s take a walk through the seasons and see what these dogwoods have to offer

Winter Bark

Both species have colourful bark which is very showy in winter. C. sericea has dark red bark, C. alba has brighter red bark, and each have numerous cultivars presenting additional bark colours of green, yellow, coral and purple-black.  Indeed it is this trait that makes dogwood so desirable in Northern climes – our winters are long and it provides a bright spot in a dreary landscape. The branches are often used in seasonal container arrangements as well, since they hold their colour well when cut.

Cornus sericea (red osier dogwood) lines the banks of the Bow River, its massive root system preventing erosion, and its colourful stems brightening the winter landscape. Photo: Pat Gaviller

The pliable branches are also useful for various crafts – basketweaving for example. Dream catchers too, were traditionally made of red osier dogwood, which some considered to be sacred.

Colourful bark makes dogwood branches useful in other landscape applications – the detail in the viewing window on the left is made from dogwood which I harvested from one of my very mature Cornus sericea ‘Flavirimea’. I then had my friend and colleague, Greg Booth of Sawback Developments, fashion this Japanese-style gate for a client. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Since it is the younger branches that are the most colourful, keeping old branches pruned out will ensure good bark colour. Very old, untidy specimens can be ‘rejuvenated’ by pruning them to the ground. Your efforts will be rewarded with lush new growth the following year.

Spring Flowers and Summer Berries

All of the C. Sericea and C. Alba cultivars have delicate white flowers in spring. Some years they flower abundantly, other years more sporadically, and while the blooms can’t compete visually with those of Malus or Syringa, they are nonetheless suitably pretty. In late summer these pretty white flowers become pretty white berries, which are especially attractive against the changing foliage colour.

Dogwood berries provide food for many species of birds – too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that if you want to attract birds to your yard, include a native dogwood or two in your plan.

Dogwood flowers, though not particularly showy, still have ornamental value in the landscape. Left: Cornus sericea. Photo: Pat Gaviller. Right: Cornus alba ‘Aurea’. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Cornus sericea: small white flower clusters become cream-coloured berries – stunning against the red fall foliage. Photos: Pat Gaviller

Foliage Colour All Season Long

Cornus sericea and Cornus alba contribute both texture and colour to the garden. Texturally they are medium-coarse – these coarser textures are desirable for providing moments of emphasis and contrast in the landscape. As for colour, there is increasing variety in available foliage colours – bright gold, bronze-green, variegated green and gold, variegated green and white, and of course basic green. With all these colours to choose from, the lowly dogwood shrub can make a real splash in your garden.

Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ has intense bright golden foliage – a real standout. Here it contrasts beautifully with the dark green of Syringa vulgaris and the rich wine-coloured Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’. With colour like this who needs flowers? Photo: Sue Gaviller

Cornus alba ‘Strawberry Daiquiri’ (left) has very white leaf margins and strawberry coloured bark, while Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’ has butter cream variegation and dark purple-red bark. Such yummy names aren’t they? Photos: Sue Gaviller

Cornus sericea ‘Silver & Gold’ has green and cream variegated leaves and bright yellow bark – an attractive addition to the landscape any time of year. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Dogwoods also have brilliant fall foliage colour – the red-barked cultivars turn varying shades of red, the yellow-barked cultivars turn golden and the variegated cultivars turn shades of peach, pink or orange.  These Cornus shrub species really do have something to offer in all four seasons – few plants have such versatility.

The bright red fall foliage of this small compact dogwood (which I suspect is Cornus sericea ‘Farrow’) looks stunning against the backdrop of a richly stained fence and the limestone boulder in the foreground. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’ in late summer, just beginning to show its fall colours. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Size Matters

C. sericea and C. alba species are quite large – 2 to 3 meters height and spread. This is great if you have lots of room, but if not, there are many cultivars bred specifically for the smaller yard. Cornus sericea ‘Farrow’ (Arctic Fire dogwood) is a compact bushy cultivar with lush green leaves and intense red stems, reaching about 1 meter tall and wide. Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’ is a cute little dwarf variety growing only about ½ metre. For variegated cultivars, the very pretty Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’ is a great choice for small yards with a height and spread of about 1 metre.

This client’s Northwest Calgary yard was one of the first designs in which I used Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’. I’ve been very happy with its performance – very little winterkill, bushy compact growth habit and beautiful warm variegated foliage has made it a great choice. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Dogwoods aren’t  picky about where you put them – I have 12 or 13 of them in my yard, numerous cultivars of both species, placed in every conceivable growing condition – shade, semi-shade, full sun, moist, dry, sheltered, exposed and several combinations thereof. I can’t say any particular specimen is doing markedly better than others – the one in full sun with supplemental water from the downspout has perhaps grown the fastest, but on the whole they’re all pretty happy.

So you see there’s a dogwood for everyone, for every site, and for every season. Indeed they are a gardener’s best friend.

Thank y’all for reading,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Colours of Harvest

If you looked up just around sunset last night, you may have seen the rising of the harvest moon – an early fall event that refers to the full moon nearest the Autumnal Equinox. It seems appropriate then, that I write something in honour of harvest. Of course we’ve been harvesting from our vegetable garden for a good part of the summer, but this weekend we’ll pull in the remainder of frost tender produce – green and yellow zucchini, pattypan squash, tomatoes and tender herbs. Apparently there is snow in the forecast this week!

It’s been a good year though, despite the cold wet start to the season which slowed germination, the hailstorms which set everything back, and the hot dry weather of July and August that left even heat loving plants looking scorched and wilted. However, we were still able to eat fresh produce from the garden from June onwards, so all in all we’ve been blessed with a fine harvest.

My husband is the veggie gardener in our family – it was my baby many years ago, but as I gained an interest in ornamental gardening, I lost interest in the vegetable garden. It makes sense that hubby would take it over – after all he is the superior cook, and I’m most grateful for his labour and the love with which he cultivates the garden. Although I don’t tend that garden anymore, I’m still delighted by its bounty.

Harvest is more than just a feast for the palate – it can be a feast for the eyes too. As a designer, I find the whole trend towards ‘Designer Veggies’ very appealing – purple and yellow carrots, orange, yellow and black(ish) tomatoes, golden beets, pink striped beets. There’s a whole new world of colour out there! Except it’s not new. In fact, many of these colourful vegetables are actually heirloom varieties that are now being reintroduced. As with many heirloom vegetables, the flavours are better and so is disease and pest resistance. While they may not be suited to large-scale agricultural production, they are perfect for the home garden or market garden.  And they make for a colourful feast that looks as good as it tastes.

Heirloom carrots lack the large size and uniformity of their more hybridized counterparts, but their sweet crunch makes them perfect for eating right out of the garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Left: Cherry, plum and pear tomatoes are small and sweet. Right: clockwise from top – Black Krim, Tangerine and St. Pierre heirloom tomatoes. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Left: Baby heirloom carrots glisten with the chicken ‘jus’ in which they were roasted.
Top: Green and yellow zucchini and pattypan squash tossed in olive oil and roasted.
Right: Baby heirloom potatoes are tender and flavourful – they’re best simply steamed and buttered….mmmmm. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Mother Nature too has been busy, readying her own colourful feast for our fine feathered friends – indeed the birds have already begun partaking of her bounty. The abundance of berries and pomes, hips and haws, provides fuel for birds preparing to embark on their migratory journey, as well as those needing winter long sustenance. These beautiful fruits have significant ornamental value as well – a bonus Mother nature didn’t really intend for us, but we’re happy to accept.

Many fruit bearing trees and shrubs have bright red fruit to attract the birds. Clockwise from top: Sorbus decora, Viburnum trilobum, Malus sp., Lonicera tatarica. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Not all fruit is bright and showy, but the birds manage to find it nonetheless. Clockwise from top left: Prunus mackii, Cotoneaster lucidus, Cornus sericea, Malus baccata ‘Rosthern’, Malus ‘Rosy Glo’. Photos: Pat Gaviller

Crataegus mordenensis ‘Toba’ has very ornamental fall fruit, loved by birds. Photo: Pat Gaviller

The very showy fruit of Sorbus decora will remain on the tree until stripped by the huge amoeba-like flocks of Bohemian Waxwings. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Harvest Moon 2012. Photo: Pat Gaviller

It was a good summer – the fruits of our labour bear witness to this. But there is a chill in the air today – fall is definitely here, and it’s time to reap what we have sown. May your harvest be plentiful!

Til next time,

Form, Colour and Texture in the Winter Garden

I had hoped to follow up with this second post on “Winter in the Garden” before now, but photo shoots take time, especially for a beginner photographer like me. However, this is Calgary and winter will be sure to hang around for a bit longer, so the topic is still timely.

In my last post I discussed Focal Points and their value in the winter garden. You’ll recall from that discussion, that a focal point refers to a ‘hard’ or non-living feature that draws the eye. We can also employ ‘soft’ or living elements in the garden to create winter interest – plant material that contributes form, colour and texture.


Plants with strong architectural form offer a unique kind of winter interest – naked of foliage from fall through spring, their distinctive silhouette draws the eye in much the same way as a focal point, hence many of the same guidelines would apply: don’t overuse, make sure they are planted perfectly upright (they will sometimes lean over time so need to be straightened periodically) and stage them for maximum visual impact.

So what constitutes ‘strong architectural form’? There are a number of plant shapes that fit the bill.  I find that ‘weeping standards’ are among the most dominant of plant forms – small weeping ‘trees’ which are developed by grafting a pendulous or prostrate form onto a standard, e.g. Malus ‘Rosy Glo’, Betula pendula ‘Youngii’. These little beauties bring real elegance to a composition. Not surprising then that gardeners often make the erroneous assumption that because one looks awesome, two will look even better. More is better? This may be a great philosophy – when it comes to lobster, or cheesecake, but not here. I made this mistake in my own front yard a few years ago. On one side of the yard a Royal Beauty weeping crab took centre stage and I wanted something interesting to balance it on the other side. Off I went to the nearest greenhouse to look for the perfect garden addition. A beautiful Young’s weeping birch caught my eye. Oh yes, I thought, that will be perfect for that spot. I should really know better – in fact even as I stood in line I was having an internal dialogue: “Sue, you already have a weeping standard in the front yard – another one would be overkill”… “But, but it’s such a perfect specimen and the bark will look lovely against the cedar fence in the winter”. Well, the gardener won out over the designer – I bought it and had it planted within an hour. I guess it looked okay, but it didn’t take my breath away. The real effect was that each of the two similarly strong features diminished the impact of the other, even though they were 40 feet apart.

As I scrutinized this over the next few weeks, I eventually decided that it wasn’t ideal but it would have to do … for awhile anyway. It has of course, now been replaced – like I said I should know better. Weeping standards are definitely best used as single specimens. But enough about my garden challenges.

This attractive little Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’s Weeping’ has been nicely staged by underplanting with a Juniperus sabina cultivar and framing with 2 Juniperus scopulorum specimens – likely Wichita Blue. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Additional plant forms that are distinctive and provide winter appeal would be:

  • other top grafted standards, e.g. top-graft Syringa meyeri
  • columnar trees, e.g. Populus tremula ‘Erecta’
  • vase shape trees e.g. Caragana arborescens ‘Sutherland’, Malus ‘Pink Spires’
  • tall upright grasses e.g. Calmagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ or ‘Avalanche’
  • evergreen topiary e.g. Juniperus chinensis ‘Mint Julep’(pom-pom)

These can be used as single specimens, and with the exception of certain topiary forms (e.g. pom-poms), they can also be grouped, used to frame entrances/views or planted sequentially to direct visual movement and reinforce design lines. And while more than one can be used in a composition, they too if overused, will create visual unrest.

This ‘pom-pom’ topiary pine is appropriately used as a single specimen. Here, it needs very little staging as the detail on the house is an effective backdrop. The upright blue juniper supports visually too, although appears to have once been a topiary specimen itself – it would be best if allowed to revert to natural form so as not to compete with the pine. Photo: Pat Gaviller

This grouping of spire-like Populus tremula ‘Erecta’ creates a stately feel in an otherwise informal landscape. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The upright form of these Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Avalanche’, effectively directs visual movement along the pathway in one of my client’s front yards. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Top-grafted standards like this Syringa meyeri, provide strong form while allowing a view beneath it to what lies beyond.

You can get away with using numerous strong forms if they aren’t all the same shape. For example when I removed the Young’s weeping birch, I replaced it with a Pink Spires Crabapple – a lovely vase shape tree. In front of this I placed a bird bath – these two together created a co-dominant ‘focal vignette’, completely different in appearance from the weeping crab. Hence the effect is that they support rather than compete with each other.

For the average gardener it can be hard to predict how certain plant forms will work together – just keep in mind that the more striking or unusual its form, the more likely it is that it will need to stand alone.

I will be discussing plant form in more detail in a later post, but in the meantime the best advice I can give you is to practice some restraint. (Really? Is that even possible for a gardener?)


There is of course a limited palette available to us at this time of year – let’s see, gray, brown, grayish brown, brownish gray, sometimes white, some green, a bit of blue. Anything else? Well yes actually – take a look:

Many trees have colourful bark, in varying hues of green, yellow, orange, red and purple. These colours may be less saturated than the colours of summer, but because they are exhibited by an entire tree or shrub, the effect can be quite dramatic. Photos: Sue Gaviller

The beautiful bronze bark of this Prunus mackii picks up the warm hues of the wood and stone on the house. These same colours are seen again in the boulder in the foreground. Photo: Pat Gaviller

This landscape was also featured in my last post. I’ve included another photo, (minus the lopsided light fixture), because it’s an excellent example of how colourful a winterscape can be. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Berries too can provide winter appeal. The visual impact will be determined by the amount of fruit and it’s size – this may vary from year to year. As well, berries with little water content, like the above examples, will retain colour better through the winter than juicier fruits.

The abundance of Hippophae rhamnoides berries caught my eye when driving by this landscape – a good illustration of the use of form, colour and texture to provide winter interest. Photo: Sue Gaviller

While all conifers provide winter interest, it is the rich green of several Pinus mugo that enlivens this scene. Imagine how drab it would appear without them. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Evergreen Colour

I aim for at least 1/3 of the plant material in a composition to be evergreen – and I mean evergreen, not everblue. Not that I don’t love blue spruces and blue junipers – I do, and they should be used, but not to the exclusion of green. Blue-grey foliage has less pigment than green foliage, hence can contribute to the washed-out look of a winter landscape, especially in the absence of snow. If you’ve ever been to one of my Colour Theory lectures, you know my thoughts on green – it’s the most important colour in your landscape, the colour which allows other colours to have significance.

Green is the colour of life (plant life that is). It can tame the most unruly of hues, add visual depth and infuse richness into your landscape year round. So for every blue conifer you use, plant a few green ones. You’ll see how much more alive your garden will look in the dead of winter.


Textural contrast is another important consideration when planning your garden. Texture can be fine or coarse – during the growing season, fine texture generally refers to small leaves or flowers that are grouped closely together, and coarse texture would be large leaves or flowers spaced further apart. During the winter months though, we need to look at texture differently. Since most herbaceous perennials have little or no presence in the winter, and most deciduous trees and shrubs lose their foliage entirely, then it is the texture of their bark and branches we see. Spiraea and Potentilla, for example are fine textured – their branches are small, twiggy and tightly spaced. Syringa and Fraxinus (especially males) have much coarser texture – their branches are beefier, and more widely spaced. At any time of year too much tiny, tightly packed foliage, flowers or branches will end up looking busy, so punctuating with some coarse texture will create both emphasis and contrast.

Texture can also refer to the surface of something – is it rough or smooth, shiny or matte. In the winter this will refer mostly to the bark of trees and shrubs.

Compare the very different texture of the above three trees – the oddly flaking bark of Pinus sylvestris (left), the twisted striated bark of Crataegus mordenensis ‘Toba’(centre), and the shiny peeling bark of Prunus mackii (right). Photos: Sue Gaviller

Evergreen Texture

All evergreen foliage is considered fine textured – narrow needles spaced closely, and yet they appear texturally quite different. Some appear weightier than others – they may be denser or the needles longer, or stiffer. Use of contrast in this regard will produce superior results to utilizing a single type of evergreen. Yet another example of me not practicing what I preach – I have too many junipers in my backyard, with few other evergreen foliage types (that and my Rosy Glo has developed quite a lean).

These conifers are all fine textured, but they differ in perceived weight. The lacy foliage of Juniperus chinensis ‘Mint Julep’ (right), appears lighter and airier than the stiff needled Pinus mugo (left) and Picea pungens ‘Globosa’ (middle). Photo: Sue Gaviller

The beauty of winter is that it offers us a glimpse of colour and texture combinations that would be obscured in other seasons by branches clothed in foliage. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I invite you to open your eyes to the beauty that is winter – at least for a few more weeks.

Spring is coming.

Til then,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

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