WE’RE PRETTY much left with broad-leaved evergreens by this time of year. Sure, hellebores are beginning to bud down there by our ankles, and deciduous trees contribute eye-catching shapes and bark. But as the darkest day of the year draws near, respirating green leaves reassure us the garden is still alive.
Broadleaf evergreens are out there right now in the cold, wet and wind, screening your garden, muffling neighborhood noise, and sometimes, in the case of camellias and sweet box, budding and blooming despite the weather.
Unfortunately, Northwest gardens are filled with stalwart but dull evergreens, such as rhododendrons, andromeda and nandina. These plants are so familiar to us, they read like overgrown green blobs. (How often have you slowed down to admire a laurel hedge lately?)
Fortunately, there are a great many more interesting possibilities. Consider planting smaller evergreens in pots close to the house where you’ll see them often. Remember to check hardiness ratings. A few years ago, everyone was crazy about the purple-leafed Hebe ‘Amy.’ Until most died off during that streak of cold winters.
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My favorite find is the dwarf Daphne odora ‘Maejima,’ reliably hardy and growing in a pot on the deck. It’s the most spectacularly variegated of the daphnes, with wide gold bands on every shiny green leaf. The intense fragrance of its little flowers wafts in through the windows come March. It takes sun or shade, and deer don’t eat it (not a problem on my city deck, but a criteria for country gardens).
If you prefer paler variegation, check out the holly look-alike Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Variegata,’ which grows to a tidy 4 feet high and wide. With dark-green, spiny leaves trimmed in cream, this is about as trouble-free and handsome a year-round plant as you can find.
For a shadier spot, the 2-foot-high Scarletta fetterbush — that name sounds like one of “the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” — is a beauty, with leaves that turn from summer green to reddish-bronze in autumn. Treat it like a tall ground cover or low shrub, plant with ferns and rhodies, and this leafy beauty (real name Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Zeblid) will liven up your garden in all seasons.
Speaking of plant names, check out the Handsome devil viburnum (V. ‘Le Bois Marquis’), a dense shrub that grows 6 to 8 feet tall. It lives up to its name with glossy leaves that come on orange-bronze, turn green in summer, then shade to burgundy as the weather cools.
This time of year, every branch of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’) is an arrangement waiting to be cut, decked out in white flowers, serrated leaves and big, knobby fruits in shades from yellow to brilliant red all at the same time. A multitrunked shrub or small tree with rough, peeling, reddish bark (same family as madrones), it works for screening, in a big pot, or as the star of the border.
No need for laurel. Go for shrubs and trees compact enough for urban and suburban gardens with stand-out foliage or leaves that change color. Can you think of a better excuse to avoid malls and cruise nurseries than to hunt down a dramatically variegated daphne or a cascade of reddish-bronze foliage that grows only 2 feet high?
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.