Colors can provide comfort for winter gardeners.
WE’VE MADE IT past the winter solstice, when the shortest day of the year offers up a scant eight hours and 25 minutes of daylight. Even in the depths of darkness, gardeners reassure themselves that, just outside their doors, plants are storing up energy in anticipation of spring. Brightly colored bark and foliage can help keep our spirits up as we wait for even longer days to come.
A large pot layered with winter-resilient plantings, an entry garden planted in variegated evergreens, or a showy plant combo or two easily viewed from inside the house are all effective strategies. Plants with winter interest also can lure you out into the garden. I’ve planted a far corner of my garden with a coral bark maple surrounded by hellebores and autumn ferns. Pulling on boots and trekking out there (close as it is, really) to cut some twigs, fronds and flowers can be the highlight of a housebound winter day. If that sounds kind of pathetic, so be it — in December and January, I’ll take any reminder of nature’s vitality I can find.
Here are a just a few of the plants sure to lend a dose of cheer to your chilly garden. Tracking them down is a good excuse for a winter jaunt to the nurseries when they most need the business, and you’re probably most desperate for a plant fix.
• Look to maples, dogwoods and pale birches for colorful, textural winter bark. Cornus sanguinea ‘Arctic Sun’, with its thicket of bare branches in shades of cream through orange and scarlet, is my favorite of the bright-bark dogwoods. It’s a compact version of C. sanguinea ‘Winter Flame’, perfectly scaled for urban gardens, topping out at 3 feet to 4 feet tall. Be sure to plant a grouping of these twiggy dogwoods to create a haze of color that’ll light up even the gloomiest of days.
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• I’ve never had a garden without at least one coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’), for its vivid bark that stands out like a beacon in the winter landscape. Then there’s the subtler, yet equally eye-catching paperbark maple (Acer griseum), with dramatically peeling bark in a warm shade of chestnut brown. These maples are small-scale trees with good fall color. With both trees, the real show starts when the leaves fall.
• When it comes to variegated shrubs, there are so many possibilities, it’ll make your head spin. When choosing between leaves outlined in yellow, splashed with pink, or dappled with gold or burgundy, always keep weather endurance and winter light in mind. You want plants with healthy-looking leaves year-round. And those leaves should be colored and textured to reflect as much light as possible. There are glossy-leafed euonymus, like E. fortunei ‘Gold Splash’, with leaves patterned in bold green and sun gold. Daphne odora, that most fragrant of winter-blooming shrubs, now comes in a version (D. odora ‘Maejima’) with leaves banded in wide, warm cream. There are acubas and hebes, osmanthus and phormiums with foliage dazzling and sufficiently light-reflecting to enliven even the dullest of winter days in the garden.
Even though the light returns slowly this deep into winter, we can take comfort in knowing that the days are growing (imperceptibly) longer as the Earth begins its ever-so-gradual tilt back toward the sun.