How to design the colorful winter garden
One of the delightful aspects of living in a relatively mild winter climate is that you can enjoy working and being outdoors year ‘round on nice days. Some of the most pleasant weather for basking in the outdoor sun occurs in the winter months in hot summer climates — days when you can sit outdoors in the middle of the day and enjoy the sunshine without melting from too much heat. The mild sun also makes it delightful to take time outdoors for relaxing, reading and just strolling through the garden to enjoy nature. Having a garden that is worth enjoying at this time of year, however, can get a bit tricky. If you want a colorful winter garden, you need to plan for it and incorporate the concept into your full year plan. That means you need to work around the fact that many plants will be dormant.
The springtime is the most popular time for plants of all types to show off their flowers. In the autumn, there are a number of plants that prefer to be late season bloomers. The summer can be so hot in some areas that there are fewer plants willing to offer up delicate and colorful petals to searing sun. Here in the chaparral we get a flush of bloom from our native plants in late winter. Early and mid-winter can look fairly sparse if you don’t design in color in advance. There are ways to make this time of year colorful. Here are some ways you can get your garden to sparkle even at the coolest time of the year.
Look for the winter bloomers. There are winter and early spring annuals like stock, with its sweet perfume, snapdragons (antirrhinums) and pansies that will add color to the dullest gardens. All may get seared by a random late frost or early hot sun, but most manage to hang in despite the occasional weather challenges.
One of the best ways to assure color in the garden all year, no matter what season, is to get some of that color donated in the form of foliage rather than depending exclusively on flowers. Colored foliage can be either ‘self’, meaning a single color, or variegated, with more than one color. Curiously enough, some green plants with a random white or yellow variegation like marbling or streaking get their coloring from a viral infection that has no adverse effect on the health of the plant. More regularly-patterned colors are usually genetically programmed. You can find a variety of colored leaves in plants of all sizes. Most plants with a lot of yellow or white require shading from the hot sun. Since the lighter colors denote an absence of chlorophyll, these plants burn in bright sun, especially where humidity is low.
One of the most popular trees with deep purple foliage is the ornamental plum. It is a very tough and drought-tolerant tree. A relatively small tree, growing from 10 to 20 feet tall, it is easy to care for and adds a dark color note in the tree family. Sometimes an individual tree will bear fruit even though these plums are bred to be fruitless. The fruits are usually small and not particularly edible. Be aware that the ornamental plum does go dormant in the winter.
A bush that can eventually grow into tree proportions if it has enough water, reasonable soil and time, is the Hopseed Bush (Dodonea purpurea). This one can fill in with height or width and offers foliage with a strong red tinge. It will not do well in a hard frost. A bit tougher, with shiny green leaves that are bright red when young, is the Photinia. Varieties can be shrub to tree sizes. More interesting trees with fanciful leaf shapes that shade toward purple are the Acacia baileyana (evergreen with yellow flowers) and the Cotinus (purple smoke tree). Both have proved to be quite frost resistant.
Phormiums, commonly known as New Zealand Flax, come in a wonderful rainbow of colors. Their sword-shaped leaves are a delightful contrast to the mounding form of most other plants. But their prettiest colors often burn in very hot summer sun so they do best in dappled shade in gardens in desert and other hot sun gardens. Having become used to thinking of them as delicate, I was quite surprised at how even the most fragile looking plant bore a cold snap down into the low teens without a complaint.
Some variegated varieties of common plants like Agapanthus and Lirope will burn from a hard frost. The variegated society garlic, being a clump of tiny bulbs is hardier. There are also an assortment of colorful ornamental grasses that like a wide variety of conditions.
Many chaparral plants grow grey, whitish and even fuzzy leaves to deal with the bright sunshine. These provide an excellent foil for bright and dark greens. The Teucrium fruticans azurea (Germander) grows into a soft grey shrub that blooms with sky blue flowers in the middle of the winter. There are a number of smaller Teucriums with pink or purple flowers that have been highly successful in this area as well. I love the Salvia chamaedryoides with its on foot height, bright blue flowers (yes, I tend to be partial to unusual blues) and its almost white foliage. Some Artemesias also fare well in cold weather with their fine grey foliage. There are many more colorfully-leaved plants to choose from, a number of which offer colorful flowers as a bonus. Most of these plants do well in any dry, sunny climate that is free from hard frosts.
Another way to add color is to plant the bright berry-bearing plants like Pyracantha, Cottoneaster or Heavenly Bamboo. All do well in our climate and soil. All offer brilliant red or orange clusters of berries that contrast nicely with their foliage. For showy white berries, look for the attractive shrub, Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). Give it some shade where can temperatures soar.
Even with extreme heat and unexpected cold, there are still many fascinating plants to offer colorful foliage to keep your garden lively all year ‘round. Yes, you can even have a colorful winter garden!
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