How To Have Winter Interest-Shrubs Small And Large

Winter has descended upon us. It is cold, sometimes windy, sometimes dreary, sometimes sunny in the garden. Gardeners need some cheering up while waiting for the excitement of bulbs poking through mulched or leaf covered ground. They want to see something that is alive and interesting to help the time pass more quickly, perhaps viewed from the warm and cozy inside of the glass or bundled up for outside perusal. Proper plant selection, and siting, to the rescue. Shrubs of various sizes, shapes and colors fit the criteria. Evergreen conifers and broad leaf woody shrubs belong in every garden. There is something for every situation, climate or zone that can offer the desired effect. Let us begin with containers, like the above hypertufa with a small specimen of variegated boxwood, Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’ that will fit into even the smallest of garden spaces.

Juniperus horizontalis 'Blue Pygmy'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Gemstone'

Calluna vulgaris 'Multicolor'

Mugo Pine and Chamaecyparis

Finding containers suitable for small conifers or other plants that will survive unprotected can be a challenge. The conditions of being above the insulating warmth of the earth lowers the growing zone temperatures by at least ten degrees. The cement based home made hypertufas are perfect and we have been lucky with the large high temp fired glazed pots as well. Drainage is the key to success, the holes in the bottom must be large and unobstructed. A free draining cactus potting mix is used and stones make a good mulch to conserve moisture during the summer.

Without the addition of evergreen shrubs, planting beds, especially those foundation areas around the house would be boring during the winter months. The blue foliage of Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’ gives height to the corner while several Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ anchor the bed. The chartruese leaves of Heuchera ‘Citronelle’ lighten up the dark space and the Japanese Maple gives graceful structure. White astilbe, self sown forget me nots and various bulbs complete this low maintenance section for twelve month beauty.

The Blue Stars are the most widely used evergreen in the Fairegarden. I love the color and have found they will grow in any condition here, sun or shade, dry or dry (all we have is dry). In the front of the main house, they are planted in significant numbers as groundcover. There has been no pruning of them, but the Boulevard has and will be shaped as it grows to maturity.

Junipers, Arborvitae and Chamaecyparis are the go to conifers in our zone 7a space. The beds at the front of the house and down by the streetside are of the plant it and forget about it type. I prefer to garden in the back with the puttering and fussing, out of sight from the neighbors and others, in my own little world. The mix of groundcovers, grasses and evergreens makes that possible. Once a year there is a haircut of the grasses and some light pruning to get the crepe myrtles and other young trees off to a good start. Seen above are low growing Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’, J. horizontalis ‘Mother Lode’ (not living up to expectations of golden at all), Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’ (not that gold), Juniperus x pfitzeriana ‘Gold Coast’ (also not living up to the gold name) and in the back right Chamecyparis obtusa ‘Wells Special’. The mining for gold has come up empty, although new spring growth is much more yellow in color. But excluding the lack of bright color, these shrubs are earning their keep by helping keep weeds at bay and offering substance to a large space.

The heaths and heathers, Ericas and Callunas are smaller evergreen shrublets that had a grand reign here in the beginning. The dry slope and acid soil was exactly to their liking. It was learned through trial and error that even though these are very drought tolerants, like most such plants, they need ample water to get them off to a good start in the first couple of years. Yes, dear readers, there have been losses aplenty. The winter flowering aspect of the E. darlyensis was a highlight of the early years here. But as the heaths grew larger than expected, once again the size on the labels forgot to add, “with pruning”, many have been removed to make way for more interesting perennials. I found the green Ericas to be nothing more than green blobs during summer and fall, not good enough, so out they went. But the Callunas, heathers have been a delight. C. vulgaris ‘Sunset’, above right turns from bright lemon in warm months to hot coral pinks and reds in the cold. It is just now turning at the very tips as the cold descends upon us for longer stays. On the left is C. vulgaris ‘Anthony Davis’ whose upright silvery foliage sports white flowers in spring and summer. Really, the flowers on any of the Callunas are barely noticeable, it is all about the foliage.

Three Monterey Cypress, Cupressuss macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’ were planted out in the Gravel Garden after a purchase at the grocery, sold as miniature Christmas trees. All three were moved several times to get the spacing right and one died from that maltreatment. But the two remaining have been growing well, the bonus is that they are alive at all. We are on the upper reaches of the zone hardiness and the soil is all wrong, but the gravel driveway under the pea gravel mulch seems to their liking. The lesson here is to read the tags on those little trees offered as temporary greenery for the holidays, you might find a treasure on those shelves.

Another surprise has been the hardiness of the herb Rosemary, purchased in four inch pots at the big box store for an herb garden. This would not overwinter in our previous home in northeast Tennessee. A large pot of it was brought inside there each year to enjoy the sticky blades in cooking and potpourri. The mature size of the unknown varieties has been larger than expected, but they respond well to pruning, done to keep the pathways clear for pedestrians.

Rhododendron 'PJM'

Buxus sempervirens 'Wintergreen' and Salvia greggii

Osmanthus fragrans with Fothergilla

Daphne odora

Mahonia bealei

Not all evergreen shrubs are conifers, there are also the broadleaf evergreens for your consideration. Boxwoods, hollies, azaleas and rhododendrons, join lesser known Daphnes, Osmanthus, Mahonias and some Viburnums and Salvias among others for a change up of leaf structure.

And don’t forget the importance of berries for human and feathered friend enjoyment.

This is the third installment of the How To Have Winter Interest series of posts. The links to the rest can be seen below, and in the How To category list on the sidebar. Doing these stories has brought about a new awareness of how the garden looks in winter. Ten years in the making, the Fairegarden is a work in progress, with emphasis on having something appealing every single day of the year, not just in bloomstravaganza months. The beauty is more subtle but no less striking when flowers are not the focus. Training the eye and the mind to see it is just as important as getting the plantings right.

How To Have Winter Interest With Non Green Evergreens
How To Have Winter Interest -Garden Grasses
How To Have Winter Interest-Seeing Green
How To Have Winter Interest-The Big Guys
How To Have Winter Interest-Hardscape

For other How To posts written by Fairegarden, look for How To on the sidebar page listing or click here.


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19 Responses to How To Have Winter Interest-Shrubs Small And Large

  1. Frances, A wonderful treat to read on an icy, wind-chilled day in Toronto. And my eye strayed longingly to the two pictures in your sidebar, too. Thanks for the mini vacation.

    Hi Helen, thanks. So nice to see you here. The garden photos from warmer times help get me through the winter as well. Long before the blog began, I had the photos to take me away to spring and summer. πŸ™‚

  2. commonweeder says:

    This kind of post gives me extreme zone envy, and while I console myself with the larger and wilder views that surround my house, I also am reminded that there is more I can do closer to home. It is time to do something about my affection for winterberry, especially since I saw it growing so lushly by the side of the road. Someone must have planted it, but it doesn’t look like it’s gotten much care.

    Hi Pat, thanks. I am sorry for your zone envy, but hope this inspires you to add more winter interest in the way of shrubs. There are plenty, plus the winterberries that will work for you. Sometimes people only think of flowers for gardens, sad to say.

  3. You have a wonderful list and eye on the shrubs. I like all your reasons for their use also, especially the tufa planters. That is an unexpected and fun use of the shrubs and containers. The first image of the boxwood was a perfect combination. Great photos too. I love the berries, but my viburnum is always stripped bare immediately. The birds covet that bush.

    Hi Donna, thanks. The little boxwood is a gem. I lost a large one that was planted in a very large concrete container when a tree root grew up and blocked the drainage hole from the gravel path where it was sitting. I wondered why there was standing water in the container. Who would have guess such a thing would happen. I will take better care of the little one and the pot is on a concrete step, no roots can invade it there! πŸ™‚

  4. Frances, what a treat to see your winter abundance. You garden sings all year long. H,

    Thanks so much Helen, you are sweet to say so. πŸ™‚

  5. I am glad you mentioned Heuchera ‘Citronelle’. It is a 365-days-a-year plant in my garden and quickly became a plant I wouldn’t want to do without. Carolyn

    Thanks for adding that, Carolyn. We are in love with Citronelle and are in the process of spreading it to other areas. The color shows up much better than the reddish Heucheras from afar. A blend of Brownie and Citronelle is being established on the slope that I see from the lazyboy inside the house. Those two and the orange Carex make a fine winter ensemble. πŸ™‚

  6. gail says:

    Frances, Beautiful!~I thought that your Blue Stars were my favorites, until I saw the shot of the mahonia~ What a fantastic photo~Makes me want to run out to find one or two or three for the garden! The truth is~I have never really “looked at them” . Keep warm! gail

    Thanks Gail. The Mahonias are nondescript until winter. They will bloom in January most years with bright yellow bells and get terrific sky blue large berries. They are wild around the neighborhood, something of a pest, but will live where nothing else will, under those tall pines. They might work for you! You too stay warm, that wind is a’howlin’!

  7. Lynn Bay says:

    We have been working with Hypertufa for garden decorations and planters. What a wonderful and interesting medium to keep us gardeners happy during the cold months!

    Isn’t hypertufa wonderful! I wish we could work with it in winter, it is too cold here and too messy to do inside. We do add the reinforcing mesh and use bonding agent to help make them more winter proof. πŸ™‚

  8. Janet says:

    Love the blues of the conifers mixed with the yellow foliage. Nice looking bed. A friend in Virginia had a rosemary shrub that was over 5 feet tall and probably 6+ feet wide.

    Hi Janet, thanks for adding that. I was shocked to see how large the rosemary would get. Now I know it is better to do some artful pruning, or just whack it down. πŸ™‚

  9. Eileen says:

    Great ideas Frances for small properties. I just need to look up some of the specimens to see if they will work in my zone.


    Hi Eileen, thanks. I hope there are some things that will work for you. If not these, the ones grown here, there are surely other shrubs with evergreen interest that will grow in your conditions.

  10. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I just love those itty bitty shrubs you have in pots. They are an inspiration for sure.

    Hi Lisa, thanks. I love them too, like gardens in miniature, could they be fairy gardens? πŸ™‚

  11. linda says:

    So many wonderful evergreeen shrubs Frances! Your rosemary is spectacular. Your garden’s design shows great care and thought for winter interest.

    Hi Linda, thanks so much. The rosemary is fun and sometimes even will bloom with sapphire blue flowers in winter. Like being in the Mediterranean, not that I would know, but still. πŸ™‚

  12. One says:

    Frances, Your garden is beautiful even in the winter. You have done a great job.

    Hi One, thanks. Winter can be a challenge here for a garden. we continue to strive for something to look at until the spring bulbs come popping up. I appreciate your kind words. πŸ™‚

  13. Garden Sense says:

    Blue Star is my favorite Juniper – I like the contrasting blue color, intersting texture and compact form. Great photo of Mahonia.

    Hi Chris, thanks. The Blue Stars capture my imagination, so useful in many settings and I simply love the color. It has taken longer for me to appreciate the volunteer Mahonias here, but the shiny leaves, yellow winter blooms and pale blue berries won me over. πŸ™‚

  14. Rose says:

    This has been a great series, Frances, and very informative. Looking out the window these days, I wish I had more evergreens–besides the overgrown yews, that is. Not all of these would thrive in my zone 5 garden, but it gives me ideas to check out. I planted a false cypress this fall whose name I’ve forgotten, but I fell in love with that gold foliage–let’s hope its semi-shady spot doesn’t disappoint me!

    Hi Rose, thanks. I have enjoyed putting the thinking cap on about winter interest and trying to make sense of it to others. Good luck with your new Chamae, they are a fabulous family and gold is an important winter color in the garden. I envy those yews, and would be at them with the pruners right now!!! πŸ™‚

  15. Hi Frances

    You still have plenty going on there during the shortest days. It’s a good point to scrutinise the labels on those little trees available around the festive period. Never know when there’s a gem.

    I like your Mahonia by the way. I grow the more common ‘charity’ but a fan I am all the same.

    Brrrr, hard frost tonight!

    Hi Rob, thanks, stay warm!!! Sometimes it is hard to find the botanical name on the mini trees, but these Lemon cypresses are fabulous. These Mahonias are common as dirt, sprouting all over the neighborhood, and my yard from the birds eating the berries. I used to pull them because they can get fairly large. Now I move them to an appropriate spot. Free trees! πŸ™‚

  16. p3chandan says:

    Frances, although most of the trees and shrubs mentioned are not known to me, I find them beautiful and perfect in every corner or containers that you placed them, enhancing the beauty and the design of your garden. Happy weekend!

    Thanks and a happy weekend to you as well! I appreciate your kind words. I am woefully ignorant about tropical gardens, but still find them lovely. πŸ™‚

  17. Sue Langley says:

    Hi Frances, Thanks for all the examples! I’m happy that although far from you, I’m in the same zone so may be able to grow all that you have here. It’s pretty drab here, lots of soft and grey greens, so more berries and conifers may make good structure for my garden. Sue

    Hi Sue, thanks and welcome. Funny how that zone thing works. I do hope you are able to find some inspiration here to use in your own garden. Berries and conifers are sometimes overlooked in favor of more flowering plants. But in the winter they carry the weight of garden interest, not to mention the birds love them. πŸ™‚

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