The December Garden

 I won't sugar coat it. It's gray out there. No snow to speak of nor any serious hard frosts. Boring weather, dull gray skies, and, hey, I'll take it. Better than ice storms. There is, despite my dismal description, a lot to appreciate in the garden right now and it's a good time for me to evaluate plantings and make notes for spring projects as garden structure comes to light without so many leaves distracting me. 

One bright spot of color is Grevillea 'Neil Bell', a grevillea that did not get off to a great start. It was planted in an area with much sand in the soil for a couple of years. It did not thrive. In fact, it was nearly dead. I moved it to the native clay soil on a slight slope and ignored it. It has quadrupled in size since and I am pleased to see it's blooming. Hooray!

There is still a lot of brown out there from perennials that have finished for the season, but I leave some of them standing for cover and food for birds. They love this area and I've seen little nests among the Teucrium and grasses. Eventually the browns will be cut back revealing only hebes and other evergreen shrubs. 

There are many arctostaphylos in this garden, I would estimate I have 15 not counting the low-growing Arctostaphylos uva-ursi or kinnikinnick. This is Arctostaphylos pumila (gray selection), a very fine looking silvery gray plant that will grow to about 5' x 5' in time, although slowly compared to other arctos. It is very dense and shrubby so I don't limb it up like I would a specimen of say 'Howard McMinn' to show off its beautiful form and bark.

Arctostaphylos pumila (gray selection) again with a lovely detail of the leaves catching the light. This is a special thing in the long days of late fall and winter, a detail likely overlooked during summer.

Arctostaphylos silvicola ‘Ghostly’ - From the Xera Plants website:

Ghostly white foliage is almost too pale to believed and ‘Ghostly’ is an apt name. A moderate growing Manzanita to 8’ tall and 4’ wide in 5  years. Fast growing in our climate. Do not be afraid to cut back lanky new growth for a more upright and sturdier plant. Prune in July. In late winter and early spring clusters of white urn shaped flowers appear at the branch tips and delight hummingbirds. There is no more silver/white foliaged Manzania that we have seen. Truly spectacular in well drained soil with good air circulation and little summer water once established. From a species native to the Santa Cruz Mtns. in California and surprisingly cold hardy.

Arctostaphylos x densiflora 'Sentinel' - about four years old. These are just a few arctos that caught my eye this week - many are more mature than this but they are all spectacular, not only for winter interest but for pollinators in colder months. Limbed up they can be the centerpiece of any sunny low-water garden on the West Coast.

Melianthus major looking fine. This plant, a gift from friend and fellow blogger Alison has been incredibly easy, even blooming for me two years ago. This could be and has been evergreen through the winter for me in the past, it depends on how cold the winter gets.

Phlomis russeliana dried seed heads, a favorite as they stay upright forever until I cut them back in early spring. They are little dark dots on the horizon adding a bit of fun. Behind them is Berberis darwinii which will be covered in orange flowers in late winter. The phlomis stands out better against evergreen shrubs, by the way.

Leptospermum grandiflorum, another evergreen shrub from Australia. Commonly known as tea tree. It is in a rather tough spot, often neglected but is in full sun and well-drained soil which is what it prefers. It is drought-tolerant when established and quite pretty. Would make a good specimen or a screen if several were planted in a row. It has been totally hardy for me.

More of the labyrinth garden with a pretty Salix elaeagnos ssp. angustifolia or rosemary willow turning yellow in the center. This elegant and airy shrub loses its leaves late in the season and is also a favorite landing pad for little songbirds. I've been pruning the lower branches off little by little to form a small tree with a canopy rather than a large bush that touches the ground. It can be pollarded or coppiced in spring to keep it small but I intend to let it form a canopy.

Hylotelephium telephium 'Matrona', syn. Sedum 'Matrona', has nearly a year-round interest in that the dried flower stalks persist through winter. I have a large sweep of them so they really stand out against  evergreen silver foliage of such plants as Brachyglottis greyi as seen on the right.

The figs that didn't ripen in time. They are still pretty.

Cupressus macrocarpa 'Golden Pillar' or 'Donard Gold' - given to me by my friend and plantsman Nathan Champion. He did not know which was which. They have grown nicely and add a bit of energy to the outer reaches of the garden. One day I will likely garden in between them, adding short grasses for sun and other drought-tolerant goodies but I have to deal with the sod first. Another day, another project.

After our second winter here I swore off agaves because I lost every single one in the most epic, terrible snow and ice events that stretched over several weeks. Since the agaves I had at the time were newly planted, they were not as hardy as they might have been. Never say never, Oscar the Agave parryi var. truncata entered my life via my mother. He was a gift and has been in place, carefully planted on a bit of a mound with tons of sharp gravel for drainage and also planted in spring. That made all the difference - he had time to get established long before winter set in. That was three years ago and look at him now making pups and everything. I'm so glad I didn't give up on agaves - they are especially fabulous in mid-January when it's really dismal outside.

Speaking of agaves, these have also been totally hardy - a pair of Agave neomexicana will hopefully be a colony someday. I have a few others but these got photographed.

The edge of the gravel garden. Some plants are going dormant or need haircuts, but overall there is winter interest which was a goal from the beginning. I've had to make changes, as one does, but the original concept is still there.

Those Berberis jamesiana berries just get more intense and are apparently edible. Perhaps the birds are waiting for the perfect sugar balance before they devour them. The foliage is just starting to turn from green to golds and yellows. Last year the foliage show was amazing and lasted into January. If it weren't for the 3" thorns it would be the perfect shrub. As it is, I really like this one.

The edge of the labyrinth and the beginning of the orchard and vegetable gardens. Some of the perennials had the strip treatment - I stripped the dead leaves off of the stems to leave vertical structure as well as keep the seeds up top for the birds. They love these tall stems to cling to and happily climb up to get to the prize at the top. It's a win-win: I don't have to look at ugly dead crispy leaves and the birds still get their snacks. The dead leaves fall to the ground adding organic matter. The tall perennial in the center is Helianthus 'Lemon Queen'. The Rudbeckia seeds I will just wait for the goldfinches to finish then they will get cut back hard. Two columnar apples in the foreground either side.

Seeds of Clematis 'Sundance' and the neighbor's very cool updated barn in the background with a pretty copper roof. We have the best neighbors!

More of the labyrinth garden from a different perspective.

Moving around to the other side of the gravel garden, Atriplex halimus, an edible, drought-tolerant, evergreen super cool shrub sparkles on a gray day. The birds also love this one - they hide in its branches and snack on the lower leaves as it has a salty taste - its common name is salt bush. It grows fast to about 8' or so and can be cut back pretty hard to maintain a smaller size. I have this against our metal-sided house on a south facing slope - so very hot. It never gets summer irrigation and it always looks fantastic. Great solution for dry gardens.

The berm garden on the north side of the house. I am satisfied with it, there is enough winter interest to keep us looking out the windows.

Daphne 'Eternal Fragrance' (really it should be Daphne × transatlantica ‘Blafra’ ETERNAL FRAGRANCE ™). Oy. It's a fantastic shrub all the same. I bought it in a rather sad state at work years ago, I asked Maurice what his favorite daphne is as he has quite the collection. He cited this one as high up there so I bought it. It has since filled out and is thriving.

Rhamnus alaternus ‘Variegata’, a wonderful evergreen shrub that is drought-tolerant and beautiful. It takes to pruning and would make a great privacy shrub. Its ultimate height is said to be around 12' tall and will grow quickly with attention, water and good soil. I have this in marginal soil and never water it and it's about 6' tall after 4 years or so. I should have dozens of these all over the property. Maybe I'll propagate some.

Limnanthes douglasii seedlings, Douglas meadow foam, a native annual wildflower. I love seeing these now, they will overwinter right where they are and blossom in spring with short, cheerful little white and yellow flowers.

Drimys winteri, an evergreen tree for sun to part shade eventually reaching 25 feet tall. Native to South America, it can reach 60' in its native region. The bark of this tree has a peppery oil that Captain James Cook and his crew used to treat and prevent scurvy. Good to know. Scurvy or no, it's a beautiful tree and sits atop the driveway with good drainage and full sun. I love its elongated rounded leaves.

Holboellia coriacea, a large evergreen vine for part shade. It is a self-clinger in that its tendrils wrap around and attach to climb its way up a structure or tree, but it doesn't choke the tree. It will grow to about 25' in length and has sweet white flowers in spring. It has a cousin,  Holboellia angustifolia var. angustifolia which has the same habit but narrow leaves. I have both and although young, they are beautiful and great for adding a vertical green element to the shade garden.

I have been working on expanding the shade garden over the past two years, building paths, weeding, planting foundation plants and defining beds. It's rough still but you can see the bones developing. The beds were all edged this summer and fall, a good device for making a garden area feel less confusing.

The goal has always been to have a woodland garden dominated with mosses and ferns, so the logical thing to do with the path was to encourage existing moss to grow. I defined the paths two years ago starting with a simple rake, then dug along the edges to make more definition and a sense of a well-worn path. I keep the paths as weeded and debris-free as possible to help the moss grow, I am rather pleased this year it seems to have done just that. I made an effort to plant evergreen ferns and grass like Ophiopogon planiscapus along the edge of the paths and several larger evergreen shrubs for shade a bit further away. A work in progress, someday I'll do a post all about it.

Mushrooms this year were (and are still) epic in numbers. Many of our garden friends have expressed a similar observation.

Just a fun shrub, Buxus sempervirens 'Aurea Pendula' - variegated weeping boxwood. It was on closeout at my local hardware store last fall and it obviously needed a good home, reminding me of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It has put on good growth and I will hopefully propagate it this year.

Looking at parts of the shade garden and the northwest corner of the property.

Parting shot of a bit of the shade garden covered in leaves. In the center is Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Irene Patterson' purchased from Cistus Nursery years ago and brought with us from the old house. Its evergreen variegated leaves are so pretty and have held up so well through all kinds of weather. It gets high overhead shade here and seems to thrive.

The fall garden is full of color, the winter garden in my mind's eye should be full of greens and good structure. While we are not officially in winter yet, the color from fall is nearly gone as are all the deciduous leaves - a cleanup task that takes several weeks. (I like keeping paths and gravel clear of debris as I don't want weeds growing in them although I do allow leaves to remain in most of the garden for overwintering insects to feed the birds. Leaves that are raked end up in the chicken yard to decompose.) So the greens are beginning to stand out and shine which is what I focused on this week. Every winter I am so glad that we planted as many evergreen plants as we have, and I see myself adding more as the years go by. The structure, the mystery and texture they add are a satisfying mix with deciduous perennials, trees and shrubs.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you! Happy gardening!


  1. Still lots to see in your garden. My favourite has to be the A. silvicola 'Ghostly'. I love those lavender stems against the silver. Fun to wander around and see what's happening. We were devoid of snow for a bit and found little purple violas and a couple of autumn crocus blooming away. Special at this time of year when everything else is sleeping.

    1. The A. 'Ghostly' is a very pretty shrub, for sure. Wow, you have violas blooming already? That's crazy! And special, indeed. Anything blooming right now is a treasure.

  2. I am surprised at how much I love the Cupressus macrocarpa, I suppose it's the repetition that gets me. And of course I always love to see Oscar...

    1. Interesting! They have grown on me a lot, and just grown (as in filled in). Repetition is my friend too. By the way, Oscar says howdy.

  3. Your intentions to push winter interest really come through with these gorgeous selections. I've seen that 'Ghostly' arcto for sale local and was so tempted. Love the variegated buckthorn too, and the daphne, and the saltbush, the grasses, the seedheads -- great winter garden! And so glad your agaves are settling in because they really sing out in winter too.

    1. Oh good! I'm a pusher, for sure.

      Ghostly would probably do really well for you Denise. Grab one! Very pretty foliage. Agaves do sing out in winter, anyone who could grow them definitely should! I agree!

  4. It is always exciting to see what is going on in your garden.

    1. Thank you Lisa, you are too kind. Cheers!

  5. Gray, gloomy days are great for photographing the garden, which your excellent photos demonstrate. I love Grevillea 'Nell Bell', which I've never seen before.

    1. You are too kind Kris. That Grevillea is a good one, grown by Xera Plants. Do you think you might need one? ;)

  6. A beautiful, multi-faceted garden with much to see in December. I especially like your berm garden.

    1. Thank you so much! And thanks for giving the berm garden some's a challenging garden, nice to think the extra work it has required in the past is paying off. Cheers!

  7. I always enjoy a virtual stroll though your garden Tamara. You have definitely achieved 24 months of interest-a worthwhile goal for any gardener. A nice collection of Manzanitas is a good place to start !

    1. Thank you Kathy! Manzanitas are worthwhile for year-round interest for us West Coasters - they are so good! Cheers.

  8. There is still so much interest in your garden, despite the gray skies of December. It is a testament to the merits of year round gardening. I wish I had more room so I could grow more of your shrubs.

    1. Thank you Grace, I've been striving towards the year-round garden for a few years now - I'm so happy it's beginning to pay off because really, who doesn't want pretty plants to look at all the time? Cheers.


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