What About That Winter Interest

There's a lot of talk going on around here when it comes to winter gardening. 
Do I walk the walk? I'm trying! 

Winter gardening is not glamorous. It's subtle, has little flower color and is all about textures, shadows, reflected light and shapes. I still don't consider it an entirely successful winter garden but rather a work in progress. Wouldn't a clipped hedge parterre surrounded by a 15th-century stone wall and clipped yew topiaries be fabulous in winter? Alas, this is Saint Helens not Hampshire, so no 15th-century anything. No clipped hedges here; we're kind of scrubby by comparison. So what about that winter interest? Scrubby can be interesting, I say. And January is about as bleak as it gets. What a better time to observe the garden with a critical eye and pick out what shines on an overcast day. There are some beauties out there, clipped or not.

Hebes especially shine in my winter garden. In fact, evergreen shrubs are the backbone of it all. Pictured front to back are Hebe buxifolia, H. 'Red Edge' and H. cupressoides. To the left of the last is Acca sellowiana (syn. Feijoa sellowiana), pineapple guava that has evergreen, ovate silvery green leaves. It would reach a height of 10 or so feet but it is slow-growing here.

Perennials and grasses are left through winter for wildlife and for interest. When mixed with evergreens it balances out and although they feature somewhat dull colors, there is much texture visible from the house. In the middle, center, the silvery shrub is Teucrium fruticans, an extremely forgiving shrub for sun and low water. This particular plant was a half-price plant I bought years ago as a stick - it moved with us to our new garden and has been moved a few times since. No matter the neglect, it grows. It can be pruned to shape or cut back hard. It has purple blue flowers in early summer. If you have a hot, dry site and need some evergreen presence this is a winner. 

Behind it is a phormium (unknown cultivar) as well as a couple arctostaphylos. Hylotelephium 'Matrona' seed heads on the left and asters on the right while Teucrium chamaedrys fronts the border. It's all a bit messy now and will be cleaned up in spring, but right now the birds love it and I like letting go a little and enjoying the process and observation of time. Also, when we do get frosts it's incredibly pretty.

Heaths and heathers, because they are evergreen, add interest as well as feathery foliage textures. Primarily small sub-shrubs, some are larger such as this Erica terminalis which will grow to 3' x 3' or so. Even months after the summer flowers have faded they remain on the shrub and add a bit of interest. Once established it is very drought-adapted.

Drimys winteri is an evergreen tree from South America. In a garden setting it grows to about 20' tall. It is said the flowers are fragrant, but mine has never bloomed. Hardy to USDA zone 8, it is a lovely foliage plant. It does like summer water. In winter its spring-green leaves stand out.

Chamaecyparis thyoides 'Heatherbun', while its foliage is green most of the year, turns a plum or "heather" color in cold weather and stands out against greens. It is a smallish, slow growing shrub to 5' tall or so in several years.

At the edge of the labyrinth garden, one of the sunniest, hottest sites in my garden, there is still much to see in January. Agaves, of course, and yucca, Ozothamnus 'Sussex Silver' on the far right sparkles. While certainly these plants love sun and heat, the trick to keeping many of these going in our wet, cold winters is drainage. There is a great deal of crushed gravel incorporated into this area and although difficult to see, there are mounds here and there to let gravity aid with drainage for the agaves.

 Sedum spurium (probably 'Red Carpet' or 'Dragon's Blood') adds a plum red tone (although their leaves shrink and it's mostly just stems this time of the year) and behind the ground cover sedum is a Brachyglottis greyi, an evergreen shrub with really low water requirements. Hesperaloe parviflora is the spiky long-leaved plant and in front of that is the nubbins of a self-sown Diplacus aurantiacus.

Oscar the Agave parryi var. truncata has mostly outgrown its funky mushy leaves from last year (some creative photo cropping keeps the icky bits out of the scene). This last ice storm we had I did cover it to protect it from the wet and it seemed to help. I am very glad we didn't remove it last spring when it looked so terrible. Time and patience and overlooking a few blemishes is a good lesson for me.

Arctostaphylos 'Austin Griffiths' with an underplanting of Ceanothus gloriosus, all under the canopy of an Oregon white oak, Quercus garryana. While the oak leaves are a pain to clean up (they take forever to decompose and get stuck in everything) it's such a great tree I go through extra effort to have it in the garden. It supports more wildlife than just about any other plant in the garden. In fact much of this part of Oregon was once oak savannah.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Blue Feathers' was added a few years ago. It's a fairly slow-grower and its glaucus color is especially pretty in winter.

Asplenium scolopendrium, Hart's tongue fern is an evergreen presence in my shade garden. In spring new fronds emerge and it looks fresh all over again. It's a slow-grower but increasingly larger and better with age.

A pulled back photograph of wet leaves, evergreen and deciduous grasses among small trees and shrubs. The Miscanthus sinensis 'Cabaret', large grass on the far right, is currently a favorite hang out for chickadees, dark eyed juncos and towhees. It will be cut down to a couple of feet in March or so and will mostly stay standing through winter, although dried. In a heavy wind, dried grass blades are scattered all about but it's a quick cleanup. Foreground, right is Stipa gigantea after I cleaned up its flower spikes that went mushy, to the left is Daphne 'Eternal Fragrance'.

Foreground is Fremontodendron californicum, California flannel bush. It is actually 7 or so years old but had a rough start. This past year it grew significantly and is on its way to being the proper large evergreen shrub I hoped it would be. Behind it is Cupressus arizonica var. glabra 'Blue Ice'. Both are at the edge of the property where they are encouraged to get as large as they wish.

Cistus are great for winter interest if you are lucky enough to live in its hardiness zones. This is Cistus 'Blanche', a replacement for one on this same spot that died a couple of years ago after moles upended it by the roots. This one has wavy leaf margins, large single white flowers in late spring and does attract quite a lot of pollinators. In winter it adds a fresh green color to my garden. Give them great drainage and poor soil, they'll live longer.

A little sparkle in the shade garden - Carex conica 'Snowline' and Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Vareigatum'. Both are evergreen and brighten up dark corners. The carex is a favorite, staying fairly small and have been long lived for me (at least 10 years), needing little attention nor summer water, actually.

Morella californica, syn. Myrica californica is a native large evergreen shrub for shade or sun. California wax myrtle is so easy and as a friend who lives in the woods inhabited by all creatures who eat everything says, the critters leave it alone. From the Natives Plants NW website

In the Landscape: The Pacific Wax Myrtle is our best native shrub for screening.  Several can be trimmed into a hedge or it can be mixed with other evergreens to create an informal screen.  It is an ideal choice for coastal plantings due to its tolerance to salt spray. Wax Myrtle also is able to fix-nitrogen in association with the bacteria, Frankia sp., making this shrub especially useful for habitat restoration in soils with low fertility.

A wide shot of many evergreen shrubs and trees at the outer edge of the property. Not too bad for January, especially considering everything here was planted by us (except the background fir trees, they were here).

An unlikely pair - Dorycnium hirsutum, hairy canary clover is climbing up through Callistemon viridiflorus. While the callistemon is of course reliably evergreen, the canary clover can die back in a bad winter but it springs back to life in no time. It's also supposed to be a mounding, low shrub, so to see it climb like this is rather humorous to me, a happy accident.

A few small bits of interest here - left is Helianthemum nummularium 'Fire Dragon', on the right is Eriogonum heracleoides, parsnip flower buckwheat. Many of our native buckwheats have an evergreen presence, forming low sub-shrubs. 

The southern edge of the labyrinth garden where shrubberies have taken over. Creeping rosemary, arctostaphylos, agave and more create a tapestry in winter. In summer this area is brought to life with bright flowers such as California poppy, dierama, heuchera, penstemon and helianthemum.

Osmanthus are so rewarding and easy evergreen shrubs to grow in our garden, requiring little attention. Pictured is Osmanthus x fortunei ‘San Jose’.

If you haven't guessed by now, it's true, I love foliage textures and colors. Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata', Callistemon pityoides ‘Mt. Kosckuisko’ and Hebe 'Sutherlandii'. These are full sun plants but are becoming overtaken by a few arctos overhead, so may need moving at some point.

Foliage differences can be exciting. Arctostaphylos 'John Dourley' and Brachyglottis greyi. Both are evergreen and on lean, well-drained soil in full sun.

Adiantum venustum, an evergreen maidenhair fern that spreads in time. I'd let it take over my whole shade garden if it could, its fresh fronds in spring are especially enchanting but even now in winter they look pretty good.

Some of my favorite pom-poms, former flowers of Phlomis russelliana backed by Ozothamnus 'Sussex Silver'. The phlomis I wouldn't do without, they are such fun to have around all winter when they do this while the ozothamnus has proven to be very reliable despite my giving it some rather drastic haircuts to remove dead undergrowth.

Winter interest for us includes wildlife. Here a ruby crowned kinglet hangs out on miscanthus stems. This winter we have had so many birds and critters: chickadees, dark eyed juncos, blue jays, ravens, crows, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, bush tits, white crowned sparrows, nuthatches, owls (heard, not seen), cranes flying overhead, Anna's hummingbirds, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, red tailed and Cooper's hawks, varied thrushes, towhees, ring necked doves, robins, grosbeaks in autumn, salamanders, garter snakes, northern rubber boa snakes, raccoons, skunks, Douglas squirrels, Townsends chipmunks, and more.

Aaaaand this kind of wildlife. This is actually one of our neighbor's rabbits that escaped and has eluded the cage for a couple of weeks now. Semi-friendly, we've almost caught it and its buddy. We're coming for you, bun buns. Wish us luck. We really don't want these guys around despite the adorable factor.

For me, keeping the garden going all year goes well beyond just evergreen perennials, shrubs and trees although having at least 50% of evergreen material is quite satisfying. I also consider grasses and perennials, even in a dried or decayed state. Not all perennials are interesting in winter, some are outright mushy and have to go but a few well-chosen grasses and seed heads go a long way towards filling the gaps that a winter landscape presents. Mosses, logs, rocks, branches all count as well. So while my garden is not in a vibrant stage, it is still interesting and I will happily go exploring and hopefully discover a salamander or watch the hummingbirds battle it out for arctostaphylos flowers. That's what it's all about, anyhow - connecting to the natural world.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. Happy New Year to you all and here's to a wonderful garden year ahead.


  1. Scrubby is a good word to describe now, but I love your part about blemishes! There are so many textures, shapes, shadows within the winter colors! Thank you for pointing it out to us!

    1. I'm glad there are others out there who appreciate scrubby, Kat! cheers and happy new year!

  2. Anonymous10:09 AM PST

    I prefer 'scrubby' to a clipped hedge parterre any day, and not just because I can't acquire a 15th-century stone wall :-D
    This is such a satisfying post. All the examples you show here prove January doesn't have to be bleak if there is enough green to feast your eyes on (and "mosses, logs, rocks, branches"). With enough restraint - which I don't possess, I could create a satisfying garden with only Hebe, Heath and Heather.
    I was salivation over 'Blue Feathers' and 'Blue Ice': aren't blue conifers fantastic? I spotted Arizona Cypress 'Chaparral' in a nursery recently; smaller variety but still too large for me. That black bunny is gorgeous, and seems easier to spot than the brownish family living in my garden... Good luck catching it.

    1. Thank you Chavli, I'm glad you too appreciate scrubby. Yes, there is a lot out there (in the woods, in your garden, all over) that is interesting to me. Could you imagine a whole garden with just hebe heaths and such? What a brilliant idea. It would be very beautiful, I think. Blue conifers are spectacular to me, for sure. I'll look up Chaparral - haven't heard of it but then again, I can't keep track! Ha! I am sorry you have bunnies living in your garden, what little eating monsters they are. I hope yours move on.

  3. As I've said before, your garden is interesting year round, Tamara. I'm utterly unqualified to speak about winter interest as we don't have "winter" as it's usually envisioned. Deciduous trees and shrubs are the exception rather than the rule in SoCal gardens. However, variations in foliage color and texture are important here too when floral color is vastly diminished.

    1. Thank you Kris. I wonder what it would be like to live without a lot of deciduous plant material - I can kind remember it from living in the Bay Area for years - kind of paradise year-round (except for the floods right now....sigh...that's a whole other matter). I hope you are faring well with the rains. But yes, foliage texture and color, that's what you guys are blessed with, certainly.

  4. It may be somewhat scrubby but you have more variety in color and texture than I have in my Z5 winter garden. Very little snow cover here at the moment means it looks somewhat sad. Too much snow and everything is buried. I don't have the sun for your dramatic grasses which really make a statement to my eye in your winter garden. And I love all the grays and blue grays.

    1. Aah, I don't know if I have the right juju to garden in zone 5 - hats off to you, Linda. Wowza. I have a lot of respect for you. The grasses are a key element in my garden, for sure and I'm lucky to be able to grow them. Cheers and happy new year, I hope spring is just around the corner for you!

  5. I am thrilled that Oscar outgrew his uglies and is standing strong in your winter garden!

    1. Hoooray for outgrowing the uglies! There are still blemishes, just progressively getting pushed down to the bottom as new leaves emerge. Lesson for me is not to be too hasty ripping stuff out.

  6. As usual, I love finding a new post about your garden. Keep up your good work.

    1. Thank you Jeanette! Happy new year to you!

  7. Anonymous2:51 PM PST

    Hebes are a winner all year round. Going to have to keep an eye out for 'Red Edge'. I've let our Ericas and Callunas go. They got too scruffy, but your blog posts have me wanting to at least try Erica again. Winter is such a beautiful, restful time to enjoy a different set of colors and textures.

    Went out and trimmed back a few herbaceous perennials in between rain showers. I might even have had some sun on my face at one point or another.

    1. Restful....that's a good word to use to describe winter. Congrats on getting some sun on your face, it's an accomplishment that has eluded me so far this winter. Not complaining, but it would be lovely. Hebe 'Red Edge' is fantastic, it's been a tough one and full of beauty here for the last 7 years. Cheers!


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