A magical season

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December 1, 2020

Dramatic foliage, ground covers and conifers add punch to the winter landscape.

by Jay Sifford 

As a child, I found winter to be harsh and melancholy. As a gardener, I began to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of each season and found ways to celebrate that. As a landscape designer, I’m on a mission to help others find joy and intrigue through their gardens, no matter the season. 

I view gardens individualistically, each having a complex personality as it flirts and interacts with nature in its own way. Thoughtfully designed gardens can create and influence emotions within us. They are more than decorations for a yard or house. They are, or should be, nurturing platforms for us to interact with nature and to live out the best versions of ourselves. 

Spring is exuberant, summer is lazy, autumn is exhilarating and winter  — well, winter is rather calming, anticipatory and full of opportunity for inner reflection. The winter garden should be anything but boring. 

Charlotte is full of dark green boxwoods, laurels and azaleas, all of which I find rather pedestrian and full of missed opportunities. Winter can be as full of color as spring. 

Consider dramatic foliage to stave off the winter doldrums. Ground covers like ‘Black Scallop’ ajuga, perennials like ‘Obsidian’ heuchera, and grass relatives such as the chartreuse ‘Everillo’ carex all add drama to the winter garden. In fact, in shade to part-shade, ‘Everillo’ can be used as an exciting replacement for the overused and mundane liriope, or monkey grass. 

Winter blooming hellebore

Hollies exhibit seasonal berries, provide shelter for wildlife and make for effective screening, but they are quite overused in the region. Consider blue-needled conifers such as blue spruce, Arizona cypress and blue Atlas cedar, or the chartreuse ‘Skylands’ Oriental spruce to add punch to the year-round garden. 

With a bit of research, you can add flowers to the winter mix. Most of us are familiar with camellias, a Southern staple. Sasanqua camellias bloom in fall through early winter, while camellia japonicas bloom late winter through spring. Edgeworthia, or Chinese paper bush, blooms on bare stems in February and March and has a gardenia-like fragrance. Hellebores, or lenten roses, along with mahonias, begin to bloom in late winter. Even the spring-blooming ‘Firewitch’ dianthus can sport blooms during a mild winter. Bulbs such as galanthus (snowdrops) and crocus begin to bloom in late winter.  

Winter is the season that most exposes the “bones” or structure of your garden. A garden without strong underlying structure is like a human without a spine and is nothing more than a collection of perennials and annuals that largely melt when winter arrives. Creating serpentine hedges or spines of evergreen shrubs through large garden beds draws the eye and defines smaller planting pockets in those areas. Conifers are a top choice for garden structure. Structural drama can also be created with plants like Japanese maples, witch hazels or contorted filberts. Several Japanese maples exhibit strong winter stem color: Look for ‘Sango Kaku’, the coral bark maple, or its orange relative ‘Bihou.’ Twig dogwoods like ‘Arctic Fire,’ ‘Arctic Sun’ and ‘Bud’s Yellow’ put on a season-long show with bright red, orange or yellow stems. 

From left: Coral Bark maple, ‘Everillo’ carex, Panicum (switch grass)

Finally, consider taller ornamental grasses such as panicums (switch grass), pennisetum (fountain grass) or calamagrostis (feather reed grass). Even though they turn golden brown to tan after feeling the autumnal frosts, they provide texture, structure and kinetic movement as they dance in the wind. They also provide shelter and food for birds and beneficial insects throughout the winter months.

With a bit of research mixed with several trips to good local nurseries, you can create a magical garden that elicits joy, intrigue and drama through the winter months. Happy gardening! SP

Compiled by Whitley Adkins. Jay Sifford is a landscape designer based in Charlotte who specializes in contemporary, Asian and transitional gardens. His work has been featured in Southern Living, Country Gardens and Fine Gardening, as well as Houzz and several books. siffordgardendesign.com

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