WINTER SIMPLIFIES everything for gardeners. Besides raking leaves or puttering about with clippers in hand, we can mostly ignore the garden for a while.
Yet we can still enjoy its pleasures if we’ve planted a few evergreens to soften and enliven the view out the windows. Sure, the bones of the garden are beautiful in their stark way, but it doesn’t hurt to clothe them with evergreens planted here and there.
There’s nothing I love more than going outside on a frosty or drizzly morning and clipping foliage and branches to bring indoors. On even the bleakest of days, and November can get pretty bleak around here, just a few leaves bring the sharp, earthy smell of winter indoors. We’re reassured of nature’s vitality and continuity by a copper vase sporting feathery bursts of nandina, or a cup holding a few sprigs of rosemary.
We all have our favorites. Big leaf rhododendrons offer a dramatic profile. Evergreen magnolias sport glossy leaves backed in the soft, brown fur called indumentum . . .
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Now’s the time to stroll through the New Zealand garden at the Washington Park Arboretum to get a feel for the exciting winter possibilities of plants less familiar to us. But for the time being, I’m sticking with a few old favorites. Each of these shrubs is hardy and compact enough for smaller gardens. All provide flower, leaf and line for holiday arrangements. Add a sweet-scented lily or two, plenty of candles, and your holiday table is good to go.
• Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ (aka strawberry bush) is useful in every season for its handsome bark and narrow, glossy leaves. But in late autumn it bursts forth in white flowers and knobby little fruits in shades from orange to red. Cut a branch, stick it in a vase, and you’ve got a centerpiece.
• ‘Goshiki’ false holly isn’t a holly at all, but an osmanthus with jagged evergreen leaves that appear dipped in buttercream and raspberry pink. This kind of uber-variegation can look obvious in summer, but it lights up the garden on gloomy winter days. Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ is sufficiently dwarf to grow in a pot on the deck, where you can easily clip its showy foliage.
• Aucuba japonica ‘Mr. Goldstrike’ is a lighter, brighter version of the shade-loving foundation plant. Each big, shiny leaf looks as if it’s spattered in rays from the brightest July sun. In a vase, the leaves are a perfect foil for dark green leaves, maroon or burgundy flowers.
• Pink has never looked so good as when frilly Camellia sasanqua ‘Marge Miller’ blooms against dark winter skies. This prostrate form will spill over walls or hang from a basket; it can also be trained along a wall to bloom on-and-off October through January. The blooms on C. sasanqua ‘Fairy Blush’ are single, a more delicate pink and deliciously fragrant.
• A conifer or two can add variation. Blue shag Eastern white pine stays reasonably sized over time, growing just 2 to 4 feet high and wide. Its dense bursts of blue-toned needles are the perfect textural and color contrast to green leaves. And the needles of Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’ are surprisingly soft so you don’t need to worry about the centerpiece stabbing a guest at your holiday table.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.