Hartley Magazine

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What Makes a Winter Garden Look Good?

Designing a fabulous winter garden seems entirely appropriate for Northwest Garden Nursery owners, Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne. After all, they are the developers of the Winter Jewels® Hellebore Collection. With many plants dormant, the hardy surprises in their Oregon display garden stand out. So this month, I talked with Marietta about what design elements and plants make a successful garden in winter.

Space—the cold-weather frontier. Celebrate the spaces between the plants. Marietta says, “Look for a variety of evergreen low-growers that will form patches—you don’t want to cover the whole ground, just here and there — between other dormant plants.” She suggests:

  • Cyclamen coum – deep green silver patterned leaves display a variety of colorful flowers, Zone 5-9
  • Lamium ‘Beacon Silver’ – makes glowing silver mats, Zone 4
  • Polystichum neolobatum – Asian sword fern, shiny evergreen  fronds, Zone 6

Conifers with a caveat. Choose cold-hardy types suitable to your zone, says Marietta, “because wrapping them defeats the purpose of looking good in winter.” She likes narrow upright structures like the weeping Alaskan cedar (Chamaecyparis  nootkatensis ‘Van Den Akker’, Zone 4-7). She groups them in threes. “Try and get them in different sizes,” she advises.

  • Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivars – These will tolerate pruning for compactness,  Zone 4-8
  • Juniperus rigida pingii – Dramatic weeping tree, Zone 6-9
  • J. scopulorum ‘Tolleson’s Weeping’ – Arching branches, silver-blue foliage, Zone 4-7
  • Pinus aristata –Slow-growing conical dwarf, Zone 4-8

Deciduous displays. Marietta favors shrubs and trees that offer bare-branching winter structures and bark colors, like the twisted limbs of contorted filbert (Corylus avellana contorta ‘Red Majestic’, Zone 3-8.) She adds, “The purple foliage is also a big plus in summer.”

  • Cornus  alba ‘Elegantissima’ – Red twigs in winter followed by cream and green foliage, Zone 2-8
  • C. sanguinea  ‘Midwinter Fire’ – colorful yellow, orange, and red branches, Zone 5-9
  • Rubus cockburnianus ‘Aurea’ – ghost bramble’s prickly stems shine white in winter; has golden summer leaves, Zone 5-9

Hellebores with grass-like evergreens. Marietta favors surprise combinations, such as black hellebores and low golden Acorus gramineus ‘Minimus Aureus’ Zone5-9. Other hellebores grow with:

  • Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ – Creeping variegated sedge, Zone 5-9
  • C. oshimensis ‘Evergold’ – Low growing mounds of striped dark green and gold blades, Zone 6-9
  • Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’ – Woodrush with gold winter foliage, Zone 5-9
  • Ophiopogan  japonicus ‘Gyoko Ryu’ – Dwarf mondo grass forms dark green groundcover, Zone 5-10