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A winter walk through the garden: Berries, bark and blooms

Peg Bier, Merrifield Plant Specialist

I was born a farmer’s daughter. Born to love the soil, the plants and nature that surround us and enhance our lives every day. Over many years of growing—and killing—plants, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of a four-season garden. One that evolves with the passing of time. A small flowering tree in the spring provides shade for its under plantings in the summer, transitions into a beautiful array of color in autumn, and allows its bark to become a show stopper in the winter landscape.

With a dressing of snow, the garden becomes a winter wonderland. The same textures evolve into different patterns and the chill of the air makes the comfort of home and observing from within that much better.

This week I am grateful for my garden. Along an afternoon walk I discovered accents in the dead of winter. All of these elements remind me of the four season beauty surrounding my home.

Berries

Nandina domestica is an evergreen that berries heavily, and does well in both sun and shade. It is a great filler in a border as it hides the stuff you don’t want people to see, the deer will not eat it and the birds do not prefer the berries. Yes, it does seed some, but in 50+ years it hasn’t been a problem for me—it’s a near perfect plant!

Bark

While it is most obvious in winter, exfoliating bark is attractive all year. Crape myrtle is a fantastic tree in all seasons as a focal point or as part of border privacy planting. Birch, cherry, paper bark maple, beech and even the heavy bark of an old oak stand out in the winter landscape.

Blooms

Camellias

Camellias may bloom in the fall or in the winter/spring. Depending on the weather, the bloom time may overlap! They perform best when they are protected from full sun, afternoon especially, and from heavy winds.

Helleborus

Some varieties of helleborus will bloom in January, while others will bloom a bit later, going well into April. Prune away their evergreen and tattered foliage before they begin to bloom. Rake away heavy leaves or mulch as seeds are forming and you may see babies when they drop their seed, for they are quite promiscuous. Helleborus are deer resistant and a good substitute for hosta in the shade garden.

Galanthus

Plant the tiny bulbs of galanthus in fall, under and at the edges of shrubs and trees that lose their leaves. Allow the seed to mature and spread them around as they reproduce quickly. They often bloom through light snow and into February and are deer resistant.

Winter Vignettes

Mary Kirk Menefee, Merrifield Landscape Designer

In my travels as a landscape designer, I hear a cycle of complaints about plants with seasonal interest. Plants that are adored beyond measure in their season are equally slandered at the opposite end of the year. What has luscious summer blossoms is “nothing but sticks” in the winter. What breaks winter’s chill with fiery foliage is “just a big green blob” in the summer. I know we all want that fantasy plant that never loses a leaf and blooms 300 days a year in sun and shade, but here in Virginia, we have to work just a little harder for our four-season gardens.

One particular challenge is balancing all of those love-hate seasonal plants so that we can enjoy their fabulous moments while quietly letting our eyes skim over them in the off-season. One way is to concentrate the power of seasonal interest by making several vignettes within your garden. (While the term vignette is most commonly used in literature or photography, in the landscape it refers to a particular scene within the whole that, while distinct, has no definite border.) Four-season gardens are typically expected to have every square inch to be interesting all the time—a near impossible goal. Seasonal vignettes shift the idea of a four-season garden to one where focused interest lights up in different areas at different times.

Importance of Vignettes

Let’s take winter interest for example. Unlike in the growing seasons, when lushness and color are bursting everywhere, winter interest can be subtle. The shaggy bark of a river birch, the red twigs of a shrubby dogwood and the wispy flowers of witch hazel can be hard to notice when they are scattered here and there among a sea of other plants. Too often, I see attempts at winter interest fail for this very reason. Homeowners may invest in 20 winter interest plants, only to dilute their effect by scattering them throughout their property. In their effort to make the whole place interesting, they only point out just how lifeless everything else seems by comparison.

Consider what would happen if they made a winter vignette instead. If the same 20 plants are grouped together in a place often seen in the winter, their beauty will be magnified. There is no worry if the scene to the left and right is still as drab as ever. The eye will focus on the interest and ignore the rest. And what about summer?  Then, it is likely that the plants will now be lush and green, if not particularly interesting.

Creating a Vignette

By concentrating interest and focusing on one area at a time, season by season, a truly delightful four-season garden comes together. All of those love-hate plants find their home. If you are ready to give seasonal vignettes a try, follow these four steps:

Step One: Identify the Location and Season for Your Vignette

A few examples of location might be the area immediately adjacent to your front entrance, the view from your kitchen window, the berm that is the first thing you see when you drive up or the plantings surrounding your patio.

When choosing the season on which to focus, take activities into account. Winter views are often from indoors while summer views are more likely to be from outdoor lounging spots. Spring and fall bring more movement through the garden, so out-of-the-way views may receive more attention during those seasons.

Step Two: Select a Focal Point

This will draw your attention and become the main feature of the vignette. Your focal point may already exist in the landscape or could be added.  Focal points can be just about anything and range from small-scale objects, such as specimen ornamental trees, benches and birdbaths, to large-scale features, such as pergolas, ponds and gazebos.

Step Three: Define the Borders

While your eye should be able to detect instantly where the scene stops, there should also be a planned and gentle transition to the surrounding landscape. For instance, imagine a garden statue backed up by a semicircle of camellias underplanted with helleborus. Such a scene might look ridiculous surrounded by lawn, as if it was dropped into the garden from a spaceship. However, if the camellias transition to a group of skip laurels on one side and viburnum on the other, and the helleborus becomes interplanted with hosta at the edges, the scene will appear nestled into a broader picture. Avoid placing two vignettes right next to each other or within the same view so that they do not compete.

Step Four: Choose Fill Plants

These fill in the vignette while shining at the same time. Pay attention to layering. The overstory, understory, eye level, waist/knee level and ground level all have potential to add interest. Use all-season background plants like laurels and boxwood liberally to keep things from getting busy and to help with transitions.

10 Tips to Prepare Your Garden for Winter

When winter starts to roll around, many people are dreadful of its effects on their garden. It seems almost inevitable that all of your favorite plants will slowly die during the harsh colds of the season, but there are some things you can do to prepare your garden for winter and make your landscape even more prepared and beautiful come springtime.

Here are 10 tips to prepare your garden for winter:

1. Clean up garden debris

Remove leaves and dead branches. We carry a wide selection of rakes, leaf bags, gloves and all the supplies you’ll need.

2. Remove the browning leaves and stems of perennials

Do this after frost,or leave the seed heads and dormant growth for interest and wildlife cover through winter. It’s your choice: clean and tidy or wild and wonderful.

3. Mulch landscape beds as needed

We recommend that you maintain a 3” layer of mulch around your plants throughout the winter. Mulch helps conserve moisture, slows weed growth and provides an attractive appearance to your landscape.

4. Apply Wilt-Pruf to broadleaf evergreens

These include azaleas, rhododendrons, hollies and laurels, to minimize moisture loss during the cold, windy winter. Water plants thoroughly before applying this product. Follow all label instructions.

5. Continue to provide food, water and shelter for birds

Be sure to include some suet for the additional protein and fat, and use a bird bath de-icer to prevent the water from freezing. Evergreen trees and shrubs will provide shelter.

6. Store away yard equipment

Drain gas out of yard equipment, such as tillers and lawn mowers. Clean, oil, sharpen and repair all of your gardening tools, such as pruners, before storing them for the winter.

7. Prune trees and shrubs

When leaves have fallen off deciduous trees and shrubs, it’s easy to see where branches are growing in the wrong direction or crowding out other branches.

8. Fertilize trees and shrubs

Use Merrifield Tree and Shrub Food or Merrifield Flowering Plant Food. Root growth continues until soil temperatures dip to 40 degrees, and fertilizing now will improve growth next spring.

9. Protect your garden from wildlife

Deer are trying to rub the velvet off their antlers on small trees and shrubs. We’ve found the Merrifield two-part tomato cage to be an effective way to protect your plants.

10. Winterize irrigation systems

Remember – you still need to check your plants regularly to see if they need water.