Spruce Up Your Holidays With Festive Branches

Hollies and evergreens of all types brighten winter decorating!

The gardening season is over by November for most in the country. Instead of looking out of my kitchen window and seeing roses, daylilies, and other perennials, I now look upon colorful, textural trees and shrubs with winter interest. Their festive berries, seedheads, and evergreen foliage add needed beauty to the garden in the drab winter months. Even better, their branches can be cut and brought indoors to spruce up decor for the holidays.

My winter-interest plants have been in the ground for some years, so I can now freely harvest branches from them. I recommend every gardener plant a few if they have the space. Not only are they lovely plants, but they are money-saving because fresh holiday branches are expensive when purchased at garden centers and tree yards. Here are a few of my favorites for the winter garden and winter-branch decorating.


Dried Hydrangea arrangements continue to look pretty past the holidays.

Hydrangea flowers of all kinds can be easily dried and will stay beautiful for months. My favorites are the panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata, Zones 3-8) with their huge, cone-shaped flowers in hues of white, green, and even rose-red. The cultivar Firelight®, from Proven Winners, reaches 6 feet tall and has flowers that start out white, age to bright pink, and finally turn soft red. It is hardy and needs full to partial sunlight and well-drained soil. When dried, the flowers maintain a rosy-tan hue. Bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, Zones 5-9), with their intense blue or pink flowers, can also be dried and saved in the same way.

To dry hydrangea blooms, cut the stems to the length you want when the bracted blossoms begin to feel papery. Strip the leaves off from the stems and then put them in a container with 2 inches of water. Place them away from direct sunlight to help maintain their color. Allow them to dry for one to two weeks. Spraying them with aerosol hair spray at the beginning of the process will give the dry blooms added durability.



Harvest your own holly branches, greens, and pine cones for DIY wreath making (tutorial below).

Of course, one of my favorite classic Christmas plants is evergreen holly. I could not always find holly branches for sale, so years ago I planted two blue hollies (Ilex x meserveae, Zones 5-7) in my backyard. Now I have all I want at Christmastime. In order to get berries, I planted both a male and female plant. Only females produce berries and a male plant is needed to fertilize the lady. The blue holly varieties that I chose were China Girl and China Boy, which have shiny green leaves and the females provide profuse red berries. The shrubs get 6 to 8 feet wide and 8 to 10 feet tall, unless pruned. Planting them close to one another encourages cross-pollination and heavy berry production. Cut branches off as needed for indoor color.

Blue hollies like average, well-drained soil, and full to partial sun. They are also great landscape shrubs because they are deer resistant, and the birds like to eat the berries and make nests in them for protection from predators. If you must prune, the best time is just after flowering because these blue hollies only bloom on second-year wood.


Winterberry branches are expensive, so why not grow your own?

These deciduous hollies lose their leaves in the fall, leaving bare branches packed with berries. There are lots of bushy, colorful winterberries from which to choose. Like other hollies, one male shrub is needed to pollinate the berry-producing females. Proven Winners’ Berry Heavy and Berry Heavy Gold bear copious branches laden with bright red and gold berries. Plant Mr. Poppins® winterberry as the pollenizing male shrub. If you are looking for a shorter, more compact winterberry that bears large, abundant, bright, red berries, you might consider Little Goblin® Red (4 x 4 ft.). Plant at least one Little Goblin® Guy as a pollenizer–one male shrub can supply pollen to up to five females. Winterberries tolerate moist soil and produce the most berries if planted in the full sun, though they can tolerate partial sun. Cut off their festive branches for long-lasting indoor color.


Evergreen branches of all types look beautiful in indoor and outdoor arrangements. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Evergreens from my garden are essential for my Christmas decorations because every year I accent my manger scene on top of my old upright piano with evergreen branches and pine cones. I choose branches from many wonderful conifers in my garden, including Nootka cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, Zones 3-8, 60-90 ft.), which has soft, evergreen branches, much like arborvitae, prickly silvery-blue spruce (Picea pungens, Zones 2-7, 30-60 ft.) boughs, and the soft branches of white pine (Pinus strobus, Zones 3-8, 50-150 ft.). All of these trees need space and make beautiful specimens if you have a sizable yard. One potential concern with growing blue spruce is the fungal needle disease called Rhizosphaera, which has slowly been killing them off, so disease management may be required (click here to learn more). Another comparable tree with no disease problems is the white fir (Abies concolor, Zones 3-7, 40-70 ft.). I also like white fir because its waxy blue-green needles are not prickly.

When decorating my manger scene with evergreens, I first put down artificial snow blankets, then the manger scene in the middle, a miniature church at one end, and an old piece of driftwood on the other. Evergreen branches and pine cones of all types and sizes are placed behind the whole scene with a chain of tiny rice lights twined through them. Finally, I sprinkle artificial, glittery snow over it all. In addition to greens from my yard, I also like to snip off some of the lower branches from my balsam fir Christmas tree to add fragrance to the display. My manger scene is one of the last things I take down after the holidays.

I also like to add evergreen branches around candles, in holiday flower arrangements, and to decorate outdoor pots (see the video above). Another perfect use is to make your own wreaths from them. Metal wreath forms are available to buy and make DIY wreath making a snap.  I also recommend sticking in a few winterberries or holly branches for color (see the video below).

Consider spending some time this season making your own decorations and displays from the garden. Or, you can plan to plant your garden up with hollies and evergreens next year if it lacks them. Happy holidays!

Effortless Junipers for Practically Every Garden

Ground cover junipers look handsome when planted in spacious containers.

There are few plants that come in as many different forms as the juniper. The Genus Juniperus includes plants that are grown as ground covers with some that hug the ground at just several inches and others that may reach 2-3 feet in height. Another category is the shrub types, and these can range in growth from 4-12 feet. Junipers can also be columnar in their growth habit with heights ranging from about a few feet up to 20-30 feet. Then, there are the tree junipers that can reach 50 feet or more.

Juniper berries are waxy, fragrant, and distinctive.

Junipers are conifers, but instead of cones, the female shrubs have berry-like, waxy, blue-green fruits. The berries of some types are highly scented and are often used during the Christmas and New Year holiday season in wreaths and often as part of an evergreen indoor table decoration. Often, juniper scent is incorporated into holiday candles. Most juniper plants produce berries that are attractive to many birds.  Hummingbirds often build nests in the larger shrub and tree types.

Juniper foliage color can be various shades of green to blue, gray, and yellow. The leaves of some have smooth or prickly needles, so consider this when choosing a variety. Prickly forms should be planted in areas where people won’t have contact with the foliage.

Growing Juniper

Junipers can be planted in the spring or early fall.

Good drainage is a requirement for most juniper varieties, and once established many require little or no additional water, depending on your plant zone. Be sure and read the plant label for detailed planting guidelines. Most varieties will take a full sun location, but there are some that like some protection from the hot afternoon sun. Well-drained average soil will usually suffice. Amending the soil at planting time with a little Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss will encourage good growth from the start.

There is a vast selection of juniper choices, so it would be impossible to list all of the many varieties here. Instead, I have included several popular varieties that should be readily available at garden centers.

Groundcover Junipers

Juniperus horizontalis comes in several pleasing, low-growing varieties.

Tam juniper (Juniperus sabina ‘Tamariscifolia’, Zones 4-7), is often referred to as simply Tam. With blue-green foliage, expect this juniper to reach 2-3 feet in height and a width of 10 ft. It is one of the most widely used junipers in gardens.

Blue rug juniper (J. horizontalis ‘Wiltoni’, Zones 3-9) has silver-blue foliage that hugs the ground with long trailing branches. It is flatter and grows closer to the ground than the Tam Juniper. Expect it to spread beautifully. Specimens will tolerate some salt-spray and sandy soil, so it is a great oceanside shrub.

Shrub Junipers

Golden junipers add extra pizzaz to every garden.

Weeping needle juniper (J. rigida ‘’Pendula’, Zones 5-8) has an upright main stem and is often trained and staked to show off the secondary branches with weeping tips. Its green foliage and blue-black fruits are appealing. It will reach 15-20 ft in height when mature.

Pencil point common juniper (J. communis ‘Compressa’, Zones 3-7) is a very tight shrub with blue-green foliage. It is a slow grower that only grows about 2-4 inches per year. This is an ideal conifer for a rock garden and rarely needs pruning. Sometimes it is planted in rows as a dividing line in the garden.

Gold Coin common juniper (J. communis ‘Gold Coin’, Zones 3-7) is a conical, upright form with finely cut foliage. It is most admired for its brilliant new golden growth which turns bright green in the summer. It will reach about 10 feet.

Moonglow Rocky Mountain juniper (J. scopulorum ‘Moonglow’, Zones 3-7) is a dense conical grower with steel-blue color. At maturity, it will reach 8-10 feet. It makes a good screen and can be sheared as needed.

Tree Junipers

Western cedars are high-value trees for wildlife.

Western juniper (J. occidentalis, Zones 4-8) has fragrant green foliage and is native to intermountain regions from Central Washington to Southern California. It is very large growing and will reach 50-60 ft. The fruits are essential food for many native birds.

Weeping blue juniper (J. scopulorum ‘Tolleson’s Blue Weeping’, Zones 3-7) will usually reach about 20 feet and has very distinctive weeping branches that are silvery blue. It makes a graceful weeping tree.

I suggest visiting a local arboretum or garden center with a conifer display garden. Most conifer display gardens will include junipers. It is always wise to check out plants that will be permanent in your garden before making a final selection. Seeing plants growing out in the open may give a very different ‘look’ as compared to seeing them in a nursery container.

Small Evergreen Conifers for Winter Gardening


Kohout’s Ice Breaker Korean fir has beautiful silvery and blue-green foliage that stands out in winter gardens.

I grow “miniature” or “dwarf” plants with caution*. Living and gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I have found that plants seem to grow larger than many of the plant tags indicate. I have had many experiences where plants get larger than the literature states and many gardening friends tell me that they have had the same experience. Perhaps it is our generally mild weather, rich soils, and regular rain that make for some nearly ideal growing conditions. (Sometimes, I tell myself that the plant does not know what the tag says!) So, growing guidelines can be helpful, and lists of truly tiny plants, in this case, evergreen conifers, useful.

Miniature and Dwarf Conifers Defined

Fortunately, the American Conifer Society has established size categories for conifers that attempt to address the continuous growth of supposed miniatures. While it is not perfect, it is a step in the right direction. The four categories are based on approximate growth per year and include:

  1. Miniature conifers: less than 1 inch
  2. Dwarf conifers: 1-6 inches
  3. Intermediate conifers: 6-12 inches
  4. Large conifers: more than 12 inches.

Of course, the region, climate, and culture will also play a factor in growth. Sometimes home gardeners have the opinion that a dwarf conifer will grow to ten-year dimensions and then stop growing. This is NOT always the case. Woody plants, including dwarf conifers, will continue to grow for the life of the plant–some more than others.

The Best Miniature and Dwarf Evergreens

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Hage’ is a truly tiny specimen plant that grows well in containers or rock gardens.

Recently, I visited the gardens of several different friends that grow small evergreens, and here are some truly slow growers that are recommended by the experts. (In my garden, I do not have many dwarf or miniature evergreens. Some that I have had, grew more than I had expected, and I gave them away.)

Miniature Korean fir (Abies koreanaKohout’s Ice Breaker’, Zones 5-8) offers brilliant silver and blue-green foliage throughout the year. This grows in a globose or rounded habit. The foliage has curled needles that show off the silvery-white undersides. Growth is 1-3 inches per year which makes this ideal for small gardens or rockeries. It was awarded the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society, and in 2014 it was the American Conifer Society’s Conifer of the Year.

Dwarf Columnar Common Juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’, Zones 4-9) is a narrow, upright, evergreen shrub with foliage that is tightly packed with blue-green needles that are prickly to the touch. The foliage tends to turn to a copper-bronze shade in the winter. It can reach 1-5 feet after ten years and is another Award of Garden Merit winner.

Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ has a neat, upright habit.

Miniature Hinoki False Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Hage’, Zones 5-9) is a compact pyramidal selection of Hinoki cypress. This foliage also turns bronze-ish in the winter in cold climates. After ten years, it might be about 16 inches tall.

Dwarf Black Spruce (Picea mariana ‘Nana’, Zones 2-8) has needles that are silver-blue-gray and very small that grow from thin branches that stay distinctive throughout their growth. As it grows, it develops a dense round habit, and in ten years it might reach 18 inches tall.

Dwarf Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo ‘Jakobsen’, Zones 2-8) is a clump-forming mugo pine with somewhat irregular branching. Specimens can look almost like bonsai. The needles are very dark green and held tightly together. It can reach 1-4.5 feet after ten years.

Dwarf Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani ‘Hedgehog’, Zones 6-9) has very dark green foliage and forms a dense mound. The needles are prickly and can give the impression of a hedgehog. Expect it to reach 1-4.5 feet after ten years.

Whipcord is a stylish evergreen for small spaces.

Dwarf Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’, Zones 5-8) is one that I have in my garden, and I love it. I actually have two plants, and both are in matching urn-shaped containers. A description I once read about it said that it, “looks like a firework of stringy foliage”. That is a good description because the green branchlets radiate in all directions. It is low and mounding. After ten years it can reach 1-5 feet.

The selection of small growing evergreens is vast, so it is easy to begin to start collecting them. For those with small-space gardens or a deck, patio, or balcony, many of these make ideal potted plants that look good all year long.

*Writer’s Note: For the past few years, I have been fascinated with the genus Ginkgo. My garden property could certainly not contain a standard Ginkgo which could reach 50 feet or more. Several years ago, I bought Ginkgo biloba ‘Marieken’ as I had been told that it was a dwarf form. It is a beautiful plant with soft green leaves that have ruffled edges and turn brilliant golden yellow in the fall. After about five years, it has a width span of about 6 feet and that is not what I would call ‘dwarf’.

Green Screens: Planting for Privacy

Gardeners can create layers of screening plants to create privacy, enclosures, and drama within the garden.

Using plants as screening is the prettiest way to block an unsightly view, demarcate space, channel traffic, or form the walls of an intimate outdoor room. A green screen can be anything from a single eye-stopping specimen to a uniform hedge, to a mixture of evergreen and flowering shrubs, to a vine-adorned fence. The type of plant that does the screening influences the overall personality of a garden as well as the amount of labor required to maintain it.

Ascending Evergreens

Robust, columnar evergreens make a tidy, effective, year-round green screen.

Often, the first plants that spring to mind for screening are three evergreens: Leyland cypress (Cupressus x leylandii, USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica, Zones 6-8), and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis, Zones 2-7). Each has a formal aspect and grows at warp speed; Leyland cypress tops out at 75 feet, Japanese cedar at about 50 feet, and arborvitae at 40 feet. Appealing as immediate gratification is, very tall plants can change patterns of light and shade, be difficult to prune, and, worse, grow out of proportion with the rest of a garden. For this reason, gardeners seeking a more manageable evergreen screen have more compact varieties of these trees from which to choose. North Pole® arborvitae has a narrow, conical habit and tops out at 15 feet, and Rein’s Dense Jade Japanese cedar is a choice variety that reaches 25 feet and has very dense growth.

Hedging Plants

Skip laurel has spires of white flowers in mid to late spring and glossy, evergreen leaves.

Another traditional hedge plant is Skip laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Schipkaensis’, Zones 6-9).  It grows moderately fast, is dark green and dense, thrives just about anywhere, tolerates pollution and drought, takes pruning, and reaches about 12 feet. Unfortunately, deer love it.

Deer won’t bother spicily aromatic dwarf bayberry (Myrica cerifera, Zones 7-9), an evergreen that can eventually reach 10 to 15 feet but is generally much shorter. Its loose habit is casual, but for a more formal look, it takes well to shearing. Growing in wet or sandy soils, sun or shade, it isn’t bothered by salt spray or high winds and is ideal for seaside gardens. Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, Zones 3-7) is equally tolerant of tough growing conditions but is hardier and shorter, reaching between 5 to 10 feet.

Prague viburnum is an evergreen spring bloomer with a less formal appearance when used as a screening shrub.

A uniform clipped hedge is at home in a formal garden. Informal gardens allow for looser, more textured shrubs, such as the deep evergreen Prague viburnum (Viburnum x pragense, Zones 5-8).  It will reach 8 feet tall by 6 feet wide quickly in the sun or part shade.  It grows in full shade but won’t produce the fragrant, creamy white May flowers that are followed by showy black berries. The equally informal All that Glows® Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) is a pleasing deciduous viburnum that is tough and creates a fine screen. It takes well to shearing, has glossy leaves, and white flower clusters in late spring followed by clusters of deep blue berries that remain attractive into fall.

Screening Grasses

Feather Reed Grass has a stark upright habit and creates a fine green screen from summer through winter.

Informal gardens also allow for out-of-the-box thinking.  How about a screen of ornamental grasses?  Drought-tolerant, deer-resistant switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a tall, airy, native and some cultivars can reach up to 6 feet or more. The award-winning ‘Northwind’ (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind,’ Zones 4-9) is vertical with olive-green blades and soft panicles that top out at 6 feet. It grows quickly in a single season. Another grass with a vertical appeal is the classic Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), which reaches 4 to 6 feet. It’s upright green panicles age to warm tan by fall and remain attractive through winter.

Or how about grasses and shrubs in combination? Deer-resistant blue fountain or clumping bamboo (Fargesia nitida, Zones 5-8) reaches 10 feet tall or more.  Clumps are dense, but the thin. Erect canes have a linear appearance that contrasts handsomely with bold, broadleaf evergreens in the foreground, such as Beale’s mahonia (Mahonia bealei, Zones 6-9)–a deep green shrub with prickly evergreen leaves that grows up to 10 feet tall and nearly as wide. Another complement would be Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium, Zones 6-8), which grows to 6 feet or slightly more and spreads to 5 feet wide. Fragrant yellow flowers bloom in the earliest spring. (Click here to read more about Oregon grape holly.)

Mixed Screens

Mixed screens, comprised of varied plant material and media, provide continuous appeal.

Alone, evergreen Sky Pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’, Zones 5-8) is ideal for a medium green screen in a narrow area.  It reaches 10 feet, but stays 3 feet wide and under, grows in the sun or shade, isn’t fussy about soil, and needs no trimming. It is sensational when alternated in a hedge with just about any shorter flowering shrub. One choice might be deciduous flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa, Zones 5-8).  Quince grows to about 6’ tall and bears pink, red, or white early-spring flowers, followed by tart fruits that can be used in jams and jellies. Its thorns deter deer, but there is a thornless and fruitless variety called Double Take Orange( aka. Double Take Orange Storm), which has double flowers of deepest orange that make it well worth growing.

Privatizing Climbers for Fences

Sometimes a well-espaliered tree, like this apple, makes its own green screen.

Sometimes, for reasons of space and time, only a fence will do.  Espaliered trees or shrubs like apples, pyracantha, and camellias (Camellia species, zones 7-9), or a woody vine, like climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, Zones 5-9), are great choices for added fence or green wall screening that goes a long way to improving the view.

How Do I Keep My Evergreen Wreaths and Garlands from Drying Out?

“Every year at the holidays, I hang a live wreath and real pine garland on a fence outside near my patio. I’m wondering if you know of a way to preserve both the wreath and garland so that they last beyond the holiday season without getting brown?  Thank you!” Question from Diane of Newark, Ohio

Answer: You have a couple of options, use either evergreen preservatives or foliage sealers. For preservatives, you can purchase one or make your own. Then there’s a matter of getting it into the wreath and/or garland branches. Liquid preservatives are easy to get into wreaths but next to impossible to get into long garlands unless the greens were preserved beforehand. For garlands, foliage sealer sprays are the better option, though they are a bit more expensive, especially if your garlands are long. Either way, here is an overview of different preservative products, application options, and suggestions for use.

Commercial and DIY Evergreen Preservatives

Chemical Tree Preservatives

There are many bottled commercial evergreen preservatives available. Look for them wherever cut trees are sold. There are also DIY recipes for evergreen preservatives that are said to be quite effective, though I have never tried one myself. Here is a DIY evergreen preservative recipe that I obtained from Live Science (click here). It provides clear step-by-step details. Keep in mind that all chemical options are toxic, so when using them, make sure pets or children cannot access the water. (Click here for additional safety instructions for evergreen preservatives.)

Wreath preservation: Shortly after purchasing your wreath, fill a broad utilitarian pan large enough to accommodate your wreath with the recommended preservative-to-water ratio. The pan should be filled with at least 2 inches of the mix–enough to cover the branch bases. Next, cut the branch bases with sharp pruners; this will allow the preservative to be taken up. Next, submerge the back of the wreath in the preservative mixture. Set the preserving wreath in a cool, dark place for at least a few days. Allow it to dry before hanging. This should help your wreath last longer outdoors. As a double precaution, you may also spray it with sealer.


It takes time to successfully treat evergreens with glycerine–two to three weeks–but if you have time, give it a try. Glycerine is non-toxic and available at craft centers. To make the mix, pour one part glycerin and two parts water into a pot. (The final quantity should be enough to submerge the back of your wreath in a pan.) Next, heat the mixture until it just reaches a boil, and then remove it from the heat. Let it cool, and store it in a cool, dark place until use.

Wreath preservation: Follow the same steps for chemical preservation using your glycerin mix, but keep your wreath in it for at least two weeks. After this time, the needles should be somewhat pliable. You’ll need more time for this method, so be sure to purchase wreaths in advance of the holidays. You can also cut evergreen stems, treat them with glycerine, and then make your own wreath. (Click here to see a great DIY wreath-making slide show by Martha Stewart.)

Spray Sealers

Clear foliage sealers are purchased as sprays and are perfect for helping preserve garlands. They keep needles from desiccating and add a glossy finish. There are also glittery ones if you like that sparkly look. Read the product instructions for the application.

Hopefully, one of these methods will work for you. As a final tip, for Christmas tree care I add sugared lemon-lime soda to the water. Adding a can to around a gallon of water will feed the tree and help keep the vascular tissue open for water uptake.

Happy holidays!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Plants For the Winter Garden

The fragrant flowers of wintersweet can withstand even the harsh winter weather.

In the Pacific Northwest, the garden in winter can be a bit bleak. I know mine certainly is. However, the more I talk to other gardeners and visit other gardens at this time of year, the more color I see. Often the color is not from flowers, but from bark, foliage and stems.

For the last few years, I am been striving to add more plants in my garden that will provide some winter color. I have learned that it is best to plant them in a location where we can see them from our windows. Planting them in the back garden is a waste since we are not often there in winter to see them.

Sarcococca - Copy
Sweetbox is an appealing evergreen with very fragrant winter flowers.

In addition to looking for winter color, this is also a good time of year to walk through the garden and see if there are ‘pockets’ around plants where the water has settled and is not draining. In these areas, I like to add Black Gold Soil Natural and Organic Soil Builder to increase aeration and drainage and add needed organic matter for the coming year. A phrase that I often hear is “more plants die from winter wet than winter cold.” This is certainly the case for many garden plants, such as salvias.


For winter color, a new plant (to me) that can provide golden chartreuse color to the garden is Thuja orientalis ‘Franky Boy’. We often think of Thuja as being large plants, but this one just grows 4-6 inches per year and will only reach about 3 feet in ten years, so it can be used in a garden border. It has thread-like foliage and an upright ball shape. For the opposite color extreme, a silver evergreen conifer is Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’. This outstanding, slow-growing plant has curved green needles that show silvery-white undersides. I have had one in a pot for several years, and it looks great at any time of the year.

Abies 'Silberlocke'
Abies ‘Silberlocke’ is a lovely winter evergreen with silvery needles.

Sweet Box

I should not overlook some of the shrubs that are already in bloom in the January garden. Sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia) is one. It is a very easy-to-grow small evergreen shrub that produces a small, sweetly fragrant, creamy white flower in winter that perfume the area around it. I’ve often had visitors walk past my plants and all of a sudden will detect the fragrance and not know where it is coming from. Sweet Box likes some shade from the hot afternoon summer sun and likes organic-rich soil, so be sure to add Black Gold Garden Compost at planting time.


Recent snow and ice provided opportunities for gardeners to take some unique photos. Oregon State Community Horticulturist, Neil Bell, sent me this photo of his wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) with its flowers encased in ice. He reported that the ice did not seem to bother them, and once it had melted, the flowers went back to scenting the garden. Wintersweet can grow to 10-12 feet and produces winter flowers on leafless branches. If space considerations are an issue, it can easily be pruned to a smaller stature.

Thuja orientalis Franky Boy
The golden-green Thuja orientalis ‘Franky Boy’ is a new dwarf conifer for my garden.

So, while at first glance we might think the winter garden is bleak, it does not have to be. Check out your local garden centers now for plants showing bloom and/or color. I am noticing that many local garden centers are grouping slow-growing conifers together to show the array of colors available. Gardening in the Pacific Northwest is a year-round adventure!

Evergreens in the Garden

Quite often when we think of evergreen plants or use the word ‘conifer’, we think of something large like a Douglas Fir, Colorado Spruce or similar tall tree. It is true, these are evergreen plants and they are conifers, but you can also plant evergreens in the garden or in containers. In recent years many new, smaller growing types have become available and these are ideal for small-space gardens as well as a container plant for a deck or patio.

Evergreens In the Garden - 'Horstmann's Silberlocke' - Mike DarcyFir Trees

I have a friend who is very involved in the American Conifer Society and he is forever encouraging me to add more conifers to my garden. He makes a valid statement when he says that they give some winter interest when many other plants have either lost their leaves or been cut back to the ground.

Two small type of conifers that are worth searching for are Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ (Variegated Korean Fir) and Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’ (Golden Spanish Fir). The ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ just grows about 6-12 inches a year. The feature that makes this such an interesting plant is that the needles slightly curl around the stem and reveal the silver-white undersides. This is an ideal plant for a container and is especially nice in the winter to have by an entryway to a house to enjoy the silver color. Add a red bow and you have a holiday container. The Golden Spanish Fir, is as the name implies, a golden color which stands out against the older blue needles. It is also slow growing and can easily be kept in a container.

Evergreen Bamboo

Crook Stem Bamboo (Image by Xongxinge)

Of course there are other evergreen plants in the garden that should not be overlooked. Many of the bamboos can give wonderful foliage and color throughout the year. We have a beautiful planting of Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’ (Crook Stem Bamboo) in our garden that is a much asked about plant when we have visitors. The stems tend to develop kinks as they grow and this makes for a very interesting pattern. We have taken the lower leaves off of our planting to showcase this ‘kinking’ and also to highlight the green stripes on the yellow culms. This is a running type and it is advisable to use a bamboo barrier to prevent it from spreading or to plant it in a large container.

Not all bamboo is tall and a good example of a low growing type is Sasa veitchii. This bamboo may reach 3-5 feet in height but can be kept as a compact ground cover by trimming it to near ground level each spring. It does best in some shade and might be an ideal plant for a slope or area where some erosion control is needed. One of the unique aspects of this bamboo is that in the fall as the nights get cooler, the leaves wither at the margins and turn into what looks like bright white variegation. Then in the spring, the leaves turn green. It is considered winter hardy to 0⁰ F.

Sweet Olive

Another group of plants that are evergreen is the genus Osmanthus. Many times people mistake these for holly as some of them do have a holly-like leaf. However, what Osmanthus can provide that holly does not is flowers with a fragrance. The Lan Su Chinese Garden (formerly Portland Classical Chinese Garden) in Portland, Oregon has a large specimen of Osmanthus heterophyllus which blooms in winter with creamy white flowers and a strong fragrance that sometimes permeates outside the walls of this garden to passersby walking along the street. Another good garden plant is Osmanthus fragrans (Sweet Olive) which is an evergreen shrub, also with very fragrant flowers that appear in spring and early summer.

Evergreens In the Garden - Bamboo Sasa - Mike DarcyMeyer Lemon

Here in the Pacific Northwest, many gardeners also grow citrus as container plants. While not winter hardy, if you have a greenhouse or sunny room with plenty of light, they should overwinter and be ready to set outside in the spring. The Meyer Lemon tends to be one of the hardier ones and most garden centers will stock plants in the late spring and summer. In my garden I have a variegated leaf form of Meyer Lemon in a container that not only has variegated color in the foliage but on the fruit as well. It tends to bloom throughout the summer with extremely fragrant flowers.

We may be in the middle of winter, but our garden can still supply us with much color, primarily from foliage, twigs, bark or berries. Try some new plants in your garden and as my conifer friend tells me “mix it up”.

As we approach the end of 2012, I would like to extend a very happy 2013 to all. Let’s make it a happy and productive garden year.

Quintessential Camellias

Camellias are indispensable broadleaf evergreens in Southeastern landscapes. Varying in height from 3-foot rounded dwarfs to towering pyramidal trees, their irresistible wintertime blooms are a pleasure to enjoy in situ or indoors in arrangements. A traditional method of displaying cut Camellia flowers is to float the blooms in shallow bowls. Simply remember to refresh the water regularly and keep your arrangement out of direct sunlight in order to keep them fresh and lovely. And don’t forget to feed your beauties regularly with a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.