Think About the Planting of
Winter-Interest Plants!

At top, the ‘Midwinter Fire’ dogwood certainly stands out in a winter border; above, Jerusalem sage showing the flower stalks left in place over the winter; and below, the ever-so-common silver-dollar plant.

As this is written in mid December, I’ve just returned from a visit to the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific (HCP) in Victoria. The purpose of my visit was to check out their Doris Page Winter Garden, a feature begun in 1984 and officially opened in August 1985.

I mention this because I have for years thought that throughout the country we don’t do nearly enough to pro-mote plants that have winter interest. This is what the Doris Page Winter Garden does so well, and yet it’s really the only such garden of which I know--even here in the country’s mildest climate.

In walking through the HCP with Joyce Parker who heads up the guiding activities there, and knows not only the history of the garden, but most of the 500 varieties of plants as well, I was impressed with the number of plants grow-ing there that are hardy in climates much colder than on Vancouver Island. Some of the most interesting and bright colours in the garden, at least in mid-December, come from the red- and yellow-stemmed dogwoods. Winter jasmine too was just coming into full bloom, and while it’s on the borderline of hardiness in southern Ontario, it’s certainly worthy of testing by those gardeners who like to try borderline plants, and/or indeed have a protected and sunny south-facing wall.

One combination that just looked great was yellow-stemmed dogwood (Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’ under-planted with black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’). Now, the dogwood is literally hardy anywhere in Canada, but mondo grass is not. However, that particular lilyturf, mondo grass, usually does well in zones 5 to 7 if a winter mulch is used. And, the Cornus sanguinea looked wonderful as well. It too is hardy, but a little difficult to find. Hortico in Waterdown do have the cultivar ‘Midwinter Fire’.

In herbaceous plants, the hellebores are a major element of this garden; the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) was in full bloom, and huge buds on the jagged-leaf-edge Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius) were just beginning to open. These are certainly hardy in many areas, particularly where there is a mulch and/or snow cover.

One plant that was relatively new to me was Jerusalem sage (Phlomis russeliana), which has gorgeous woolly leaves--green on the upper surface and whitish beneath. In the summer it has whorls of quite large, yellow flowers, each with a hood. At HCP they leave the flower stocks over the winter as an added attraction. This plant is obviously of questionable hardiness, but keen perennial gardeners should be urged to try it in zones 5 and 6, just to see what happens. And, that means garden centres anxious to draw a clientele away from the box stores might well try it themselves, and bring some in for their keener customers.

Even the lowly silver dollar plant (Lunaria annua), though used sparingly, is excellent as a winter garden plant. It definitely likes a sandy, well-drained soil. Interestingly, it even tolerates a part-sun location as the photograph here indicates. It was a sunny day when I took it!

Fellow writer, Brian Minter, has done the only extensive writing, talks and broadcasts about winter gardens that I’ve seen in this country. In fact, it seems to me we used to emphasize winter attributes more several decades ago than we do now. The list of deciduous shrubs, for example, is long, even in zone 5 and 6 climates: Acanthopanax sieboldianus, Acer palmatum, Buddleia alternifolia, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, C. stononifera, C. s. ‘Flaviramea’, Elaeagnus umbellata, Kerria japonica, Lonicera tatarica, Rosa spp., Salix alba ‘Chermesina’, S. a. ‘Vitellina’, Viburnum opulus, V. trilobum, and possibly Zenobia pulverulenta (the shrub usually the last in the list of most references!).

Even evergreens and broadleaf evergreens are present, and possibly even a few of these may be worth trying in the mildest zone 6 climates. Prickly heath (Gaultheria mucronata) is one to which that applies. While wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is a native and hardy in most of Canada, prickly heath is a native of Argentina and Chile and likely only hardy on the West Coast. But, it might be worth trying.

The point is, more and more garden centres (though still not nearly enough) are doing representative plantings on their sites (even if only surrounding their parking lots), but few if any are putting in landscapes with winter-interest plants. Especially at Christmas time, garden centres attract a fairly large number of customers who could see those winter-interest gardens and possibly decide to buy and plant some of the plants the following spring. Garden centres with newsletters and bulletins could advertise the fact they have such a planting.