Year-round color and interest for the garden cannot be achieved in a single visit to the garden center—you need careful planning, research and a good shopping list. Here’s how to start preparing.
Winter is my favorite time of the year in the garden. My garden becomes the perfect garden in my mind, no matter how it actually looked when I put it to bed for the season. In winter, there are no weeds to tackle, no beetles to battle, just a pure and sensuous garden with rich subtleties of texture and color, more evident in the seasons yet to come. Winter color or “interest” in the garden, as is the garden designers’ expression, translates in the form of branches, seedpods and seed heads often viewed peeking through the snowfall.
The graceful movement of the inflorescences of the ornamental grass ‘Silberfeder’, the exfoliating bark of the ‘Heritage’ birch standing alone, magnificently, in the landscape, or clusters of colorful berries on heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) provide excitement on a dreary winter day. Crimson branches of dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Arctic Sun’) harboring red-feathered cardinals, brilliant in the winter’s sunlight, add sparkle to the season.
The seed heads of sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ remain for winter interest.
Amsonia hubrichtii, a spring bloomer with a fall finale
Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’ shows its true color best when planted in acidic soil.
A treasure hunt in February reveals delicate blossoms underneath the evergreen leaves of hellebores; their nodding flowers like hidden jewels ranging in colors of ivory to pale green and all shades of mauve and maroon to almost black.
The early yellow flower of winter jasmine’s arching branches and winter hazel’s (Corylopsis pauciflora) buttercup-rosy blooms send a quiet reminder that spring is near and the “march of garden color” symphony is about to sound its drums for all to awaken.
Our eyes are indeed awakened by the burst of spring color; winter aconite, “tommies,” the earliest crocus, pussy willows, and forsythias screaming “spring has arrived—attention please!” And we must, as dutiful gardeners, rush out to the garden centers to fulfill our desires and our landscapes with riotous color, forgetting that there are four seasons in the garden, with three more yet to come.
This indulgence for instant spring color is our first garden “sin by omission.” We “omit” the other three seasons, summer, fall and winter, and choose only plants for spring color that are available. Yet year-round color for the garden cannot be achieved in a single visit to the garden center—you need careful planning and research (or experience by trial and error).
Here’s my method for designing a garden or landscape for year-round color.
Make a list of plants to include in the garden design. List all that you desire with no limits to the wishlist at this stage. Make sure your list includes annuals, perennials, evergreens, and spring- and summer-flowering or fall foliage trees and shrubs. It is important to add evergreen and flowering shrubs to your list and possibly a few small trees, if you have the space. Evergreens provide structure in the landscape and seasonal color too—many are yellow-edged or variegated, suitable for use as a specimen in a unique design.
Organize the wish list using five columns: plant name, color, bloom time, height and texture.
For example, your perennials list may start like this: columbine—pink, spring; phlox—white, summer; aster—blue, fall. Your flowering shrubs list would add Doublefile viburnum—white, spring; hydrangea ‘Nikko Blue’—blue, summer; abelia—pink, fall.
Keep adding to your plant list until you have several choices for each season and a range of colors. Editing can be done later.
Now you are ready to plan for texture and height in the design. Add the fourth column and note the height of each plant or shrub, so you know whether to place it in the front, middle or back of the border. Add the fifth column to record the texture (fern-like, broadleaf, spiked leaf) to make an interesting design using a variety of leaf forms.
For each garden bed or area you are designing, narrow your plant list from three to nine different plants, depending on how large an area you are planting. Plan to purchase multiples of each plant selected for color, season, leaf form and height.
Choosing too many different plants creates a “busy” appearance in the landscape. Choosing fewer plants creates a unified professionally designed look. Here’s where careful editing takes place.
Now go shopping! Ask for those plants on your list instead of choosing only what is in bloom at the time of your visit, whether that may be in spring, summer or fall. To purchase for four seasons of color in the landscape, several shopping trips to the nursery may be necessary. You may find that the garden center will have to order the plants on your list or call you when they become available. If you are disciplined enough to follow your shopping guidelines, it will be worth your wait. Make sure to leave a space in the garden with a marker for that plant on backorder, or temporarily fill the space with a container of annuals as a reminder. Resisting impulse buying does take restraint. If you see a new plant that you absolutely must have when stopping by the garden center, then purchase three or five, not just one, so that you can make an impact with that plant. An exception to this rule may be the purchase of a tree or evergreen to be used as a specimen or focal in the design. Creating a garden with a collection of single plant specimens will not achieve the design you have worked so hard to plan for and will enjoy for many seasons to come.
Achieving year-round color in the garden is a result of careful planning and learning about plants’ habits and growth.
Giant crocus is a welcome announcement of spring.
The original Knock Out rose is a repeat bloomer through late October.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit skirted by tiarella (or foamflower).
A summer festival of color displays a variety of textures, heights and leaf forms.
Plants for Four-Season Color & Interest
Evergreens with Unique Color
• Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) (green)
• Blue Atlas cedar (Cedar atlantica ‘Glauca’) (blue)
• Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa Aurea) (yellow)
• False holly (Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’) (variegated)
Shrubs with multi-season color
• Cranberry cotoneaster (C. apiculata)
• Crapemyrtle (Lagerstromia spp.) (dwarf and full size)
• Fothergilla (F. gardenii or F. major)
• Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’)
• Winterberry (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’)
• Virginia sweetspire (Itea ‘Henry’s Garnet’)
• Knock Out™ roses
• Magnolia (M. grandiflora ‘Edith Bogue’)
• Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica)
• Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.)
• Plumbago (Ceratostigma spp.)
• Mums (Dendranthema ‘Sheffield’)
Grasses—Native & Ornamental
• Bearded iris (I. germanica)
• Sage (tricolor and blue)
• Dusty miller
• Marigold ‘Little Gem’
• Morning glory
• Ornamental peppers
(From Pennsylvania Gardener Volume I Issue I. Photos By Gloria Day.)