Seasonal decorating with your garden plants
Open up any garden book, and one constant in addressing proper
landscape design is the consideration of the aspect of the garden in
winter. Pittsburgh’s growing season typically ends by mid-November,
with most deciduous trees and shrubs bereft of leaves and herbaceous
ornamentals frozen into a pile of mush.
Spring can make its
appearance in late March, or be delayed until mid-April. That
leaves 4-5 months of the year with a landscape reliant on the
visual appeal of the silhouette of woody plants, the varied
colored palette of coniferous and broadleaf ornamentals, as well
as a smattering of perennials with interesting seed heads and
berries. Keeping this in mind, the gardener must envision the
landscape without the rainbow of colors supplied by flowers,
which steal the show from April through October.
Evergreens comprise the bulk of plants with winter interest.
Enormous specimens of pine, spruce and hemlock come quickly to
mind when thinking of evergreens, but the range of dwarf
conifers is vast- both for colorful foliage and interesting
texture. Dwarf, as it relates to conifers, is a relative term,
considering that a native hemlock tops off at 70 feet tall,
while a weeping, dwarf specimen might grow to a height of 10
feet or less. Dwarf conifer foliage ranges from the bright
green-yellow of gold thread cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera
‘Filifera Aurea’) to the cool silvery blue of grey owl juniper (Juniperus
virginiana ‘Grey Owl’).
evergreens include Rhododendron and Leucothoe species, Japanese
pieris (Pieris japonica), blue holly (Ilex x meservae cultivars)
and boxwood (Buxus cultivars).
'Mountain Fire' Pieris japonica
Less common, but excellent
evergreen choices for the home landscape include sweet box (Sarcococca
hookeriana), Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia) and
cherry laurel (Prunus lauroserasus).
Deciduous plant material
and shrubs can also lend interest to the winter landscape. River
birch (Betula nigra) and paperbark maple (Acer griseum) are
trees with great looking bark that fit into the home landscape.
The fat, fuzzy buds of magnolia also add interest to the winter
garden. Red and yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea, C.
stolonifera, C. sanguinea and C. alba) provide a shot of color
on their bare branches. Berries adorn the boughs of deciduous
holly (Ilex verticillata), cotoneasters, Viburnum species and
coneflower do not need to be cut back in the fall. Both look
good in the winter garden. Coneflowers offer the added bonus of
seeds prized by chickadees. Siberian iris and blackberry lily (Belamcanda
chinensis) have interesting seedpods. Ornamental grasses have
feathery seadheads and purple Allium christophii flowers senesce
into interesting sputnik-like spheres.
The bonus of
taking the time to plan for a garden with winter interest is
that nearly all of the aforementioned plants can be cut and
arranged to enjoy inside and outside the home over the holidays.
A walk through the garden geared to observing the quiet beauty
of bare branches and winter color from evergreen plants will
yield more interesting choices for arrangements than most
commercially available greens. Pinecones, moss and evergreen
ferns all can make their way into arrangements. For indoor use
berries should be firm, but in large outdoor planters
fruit-laden branches from crabapple trees can provide interest.
If you intend to
enjoy your arrangement indoors invest in floral foam and tape it
into a water-tight container. Any object, from baskets to old
garden boots, can be lined with plastic and qualify as being fit
for arranging. Floral foam will hold water and support most
cuttings from the garden. Large branches require additional
support. The addition of chicken wire, shaped over the top of a
container, will provide support for branches over a half inch in
Needled plants do
not require conditioning, but will hold up best in a cool
location. Experiment with plants to see which do best in
arrangements. Hemlock, spruce and blue holly shed their leaves
and needles quickly in my experience, so I avoid using them-
especially indoors. White and mugo pine, cypress and juniper all
hold well for weeks. Broad leafed evergreens do best if cut and
placed in water overnight prior to arranging. Pieris japonica
and Leucothoe add a lovely textural contrast to needle leaved
plants. Boxwood is prized for its foliage in arrangements and
can be used to make topiaries and kissing balls.
Proper pruning techniques
Pruning cuts can
be made on trees and shrubs by choosing the desired size branch,
and cutting at a 45 degree angle, just above a side branch or
leaf. Shrub dogwoods with colored stems benefit by thinning
cuts- it encourages the growth of bright new shoots. Use loppers
or pruners and select older, thicker branches, cutting them at
the base of the plant. Bare branches act as “thrillers”,
anchoring a container laden with greens and providing vertical
A quick look at
current retail holiday décor proves that red and green are no
longer the only options for Christmas. Just as annuals in the
garden should not be the same every year, nor should the color
choices for holiday arrangements remain set in stone. Try using
a palette of turquoise and silver or copper and lime green this
the final arrangement. Some gardeners prefer the quiet palette
of plants straight from the garden. If you are hungry for more
color in the arrangement, get out the spray paint and glitter.
Embellishments can run the gamut from naturalistic birds to
glittery ornaments. Ribbon choices abound. Country plaids or
luxurious velvets can be chosen to complement the container or
the décor of a room. I am ribbon challenged, completely
incapable of creating beautiful bows. I have found cable ties
wonderful for gathering several loops of ribbon, cinching them
tightly and plunging the tail of the tie into floral foam. The
addition of a cluster of ornaments, or a bit of greens, hides
the exposed tie at the center of the bow. Wire ribbon is easy to
work with. It allows the arranger to create a pleasing line in
the floral design.
A well planned
garden, with a mix of evergreen and interesting deciduous plants
can brighten up a gray Pittsburgh winter. It can also provide
the bulk of materials you need to deck your halls this season.
Except for the glitter, that is.
Books to buy
for a gardener
Sowing seeds in Winter