Color is one of the most appealing aspects of gardens. It is especially welcome under the gray skies of winter. True, our rains are vital and green is better than the gray and brown of colder regions of the country. Yet, need our gardens be colorless during these cloudy, grim days when we most need it? Not at all. There are easy, environmentally sensitive ways to brighten the dead of winter months, before spring flowers emerge.
Anyone can have winter and even year-round color. There are three ways to color your garden: flowers, foliage and containers.
The first two, I suggest, are plants – bloom and leaf color from herbaceous perennials and shrubs. I limit the list here to waterwise types, i.e., those with low to medium water needs and appropriate to our wet-winter/dry-summer climate, not the traditional winter-blooming camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and pieris. Because they live for years, they need less work than hallmark winter annuals such as pansies, impatiens and cyclamen, which have to be replaced.
Flowering plants come to mind first for most people. Flowers offer a wide, though transitory, range of color and thus require more upkeep than foliage or containers.
In bloom during this period, somewhere near you, are hellebores (Christmas Rose), pelargoniums, gazania, iberis (Candytuft) and even lantana. Flowering shrubs include tagetes lemonii (Copper Canyon Daisy), tecoma capensis (Cape Honeysuckle), euryops (Golden Daisy), Protea Pink Ice and protea cynnaroides (King Protea), ribes sanguineum (our native Pink Flowering Currant), polygala myrtifolia and various grevillea. Flowering spikes shoot up from succulents such as aloe arborescens (Krantz Aloe), aloe marlothii (Mountain Aloe) and aloe striata (Coral Aloe) in reasonably frost-free, well-drained areas. Fruiting citrus offer a cheerful sight and a double benefit.
Colorful foliage plants have become increasingly popular as breeders introduce cultivars of existing species. These include shrubs such as the leucadendrons, Lorapetalum Razzleberry, Coleonemum Sunset Gold and nandinas (Heavenly Bamboo); trees like cupressus citriodora and perennial phormiums; and ornamental grasses including Blue Oat Grass (helictotrichon sempervirens) and Carex (testacea).
Many succulents have bluish foliage year-round. Some, like Kalanchoe thyrsifolia (Paddle Plant) and Euphorbia tirucalli (Firestick Plant), redden in the winter cold.
Finally, don’t forget containers – long-lasting, no-green-thumbs-needed solutions. Ceramic, resin, clay, wood and concrete pots and troughs are easy to find, versatile and decorative year-round. You can choose from a wide range of finishes, colors and styles.
Nestle an empty pot among plants for a simple, no-care, arresting arrangement. In winter, place them so that they can be seen from inside or at the entrance to the house. Complement the house facade around the front door. On patios or in view of living rooms, use what suits you or think of extending the interior colors outside.
To help frost-tender plants survive, try any or all of the following protections.
• Find warmer microclimates, e.g., next to a wall, especially a sunny one.
• Plant on hillsides, not bottoms; under tree canopies, eaves or any top-sheltered spot; and at doorways.
• Use Reemay fabric covers and minilights. Surrounding the fragile plants with sturdier plants can help.
The next time you’re planning for the garden, keep winter interest in mind. You can find these plants at local independent nurseries. Call first, but if they’re not in stock, most nurseries will special order.