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Winter beauty: Creating year-round interest in the garden

Photo By: Courtesy of Kristen Rudger
Photo Courtesy Of Kristen Rudger

Loropetalum shines next to the bare branches of a Redbud tree.

Bay Area seasons offer subtle changes in the landscape. The bright days of summer and colorful days of fall turn dark and cold in the quiet of winter. Trees are bare, and summer’s generous offering of color gives way to winter’s dull and sparse palette.

The temperate climate allows us to grow a great variety of plants year-round, but too often we design our gardens only for summer, with winter interest an afterthought. A well-planned garden has a balance of deciduous and evergreen plants that offer the experience of nature’s rhythm and help us appreciate beauty in every season.

Evergreens are the scaffolding on which any great garden is built. They act as a subtle backdrop for flowering perennials in the summer, then pop to the foreground in the winter when their foliage and structure can be appreciated more fully.

Shrubs with interesting foliage are especially eye-catching in winter. Variegated Sweet Daphne (Daphne odora variegata), Cream De Mint Pittosporum and Cream Delight Flax (Phormium ‘Cream delight’) all offer standout color without flowering. Sunset Gold Breath of Heaven (Coleonema ‘Sunset Gold’), with its airy, chartreuse foliage, is a favorite for bright color year-round. Offering a darker palette, but with spectacular foliage and bright spring flowers, Fringe Flower (Loropetalum chinensis) in its many varieties is a great shrub for winter color. Use these evergreens generously in your garden with a sprinkling of deciduous plants to round out the palette and welcome winter.

Deciduous plants are the hallmarks of seasonal changes in the landscape. The bright colors of fall leaves yield to beautiful branch structure and interesting bark on many shrubs and trees. Think bare branches are unsightly and boring? You’ll change your mind when you see the fabulous bright red bark of the Coral Bark Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) and Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus alba); the lovely mottled bark of Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) and Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia psuedocamellia); or the ethereal beauty of winter berries dangling from bare branches of Pistache trees (Pistachia chinensis) and Washington Hawthorne (Craetageus phaenopyrum).

Flowers in winter

Although all of these plants provide beauty throughout the winter, many of us miss flowers in the winter garden. Flowering plants are rare but special members of any winter landscape. The star of the winter garden is the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger). It boasts dark, leathery leaves and spectacular purple, white or pink flowers from January through March.

A mass of Hellebore in your border will not disappoint. Another prolific winter flowering shrub is the Camellia. In our region, Camellias bloom from January through March. Yuletide Camellia (Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’), with its bright-red flowers and yellow stamen, is an especially beautiful specimen that, as its name suggests, blooms in December.

Finally, many Australian varieties of plants perform well in our microclimate and bloom throughout winter. Grevillea blooms from December through March with stunning red flowers. Coastal Gem is a beautiful Grevillea varietal with gray foliage and red flowers.

Using a thoughtful mix of these winter blooming stars, along with some winter dormant plants that will put on a show in summer, you can have color and beauty year-round in your ever-changing, seasonal landscape.

Kristen Rudger, a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, studied environmental horticulture and design at Foothill College. For more information, visit

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