Right now, New England wild areas are alive with birds and color. No winter “drab” here! This winter, walk in the wilds on nice days, appreciating what we have been given; and consider some garden enhancements that reflect what works for nature – might as well learn garden design from the all-time best gardener.
Let’s start with red as even a small touch of red perks up the whole yard. Much winter red comes from berries (and robins and cardinals), but don’t overlook woody plants with red twigs, bark or buds. Red, nature’s way, however, works best as an accent so don’t over do it. In addition, remember that what the birds eat, they spread; when choosing plants with decorative fruit or seeds, please, please, stick to the natives! Some good choices for Southern New England:
- The American holly (Ilex opaca) sports bird-pleasing fruit and spiny evergreen leaves. As with all hollies, you need a male tree somewhere in the area to get fruit on the females. Also, this plant is near the north end of its range in Southern Connecticut so plant it in a sunny but sheltered spot.
- The wild sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria) isn’t quite native to New England, but it naturalizes well and holds fruit through winter providing important support for wildlife. Here’s one “nativar” that even this purist will readily embrace, provided the gardener can lay off the chemicals and accept minor leaf and fruit diseases as part of the crabapple’s natural beauty. Give it plenty of sun. Keep away from junipers to limit fungal rust.
- The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), so lovely in spring, has late-season red berries that can persist into winter. Naturally an understory tree, flowering dogwood wants a sheltered location with part-day sun and good air circulation to cut down on leaf fungi.
- A top favorite with birders and gardeners alike is the deciduous holly, winterberry (Ilex verticillata) (pictured above in the Stamford’s Bartlett Arboretum wetlands), which produces loads of brilliant red berries in late fall on the female plants.
- In Southern Connecticut, our most common sumac are smooth (Rhus glabra) and staghorn (Rhus typhina). Contrary to popular belief, these shrubs are not poisonous — poison sumac is an entirely different plant with white berries. Sumac looks best in fairly large stands, for example, at the sunny edge of a wooded area. When happy, sumac root suckers to a fault, so pen it in with a root barrier. The deep red fruit provides winter bird food.
- Native New England roses include swamp rose (Rosa paulstris), Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana), and Carolina rose (Rosa carolina). All produce showy summer flowers and brilliant winter rose hips. Again, please accept the minor leaf diseases as part of the plant’s natural beauty.
- No winter garden is complete without at least considering a deciduous red-twig shrub dogwood. Along the southern Connecticut coast, our local native red-twig dogwood is silky dogwood (Cornus amomum). The better-known red-twig dogwood, Cornus sericea, is also native to some parts of Connecticut. These shrubs tend to look best in groups and provide summer bird fruit.
Designers know that neutrals make the colors sparkle. To look, as well as be, natural, most of the winter garden should be in neutral shades. “Neutral”, however, does not mean “dull”. There are plenty of golds, coppers, bronzes, silvers, ivories, wheats, rusts, chocolates, and charcoals to capitalize on, including those from last summer’s grasses and perennials.
- Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a beautiful, care-free grass that deserves more attention. In winter, its blue-green foliage turns copper and stands up to winter damage better than many other grasses. Come summer, it also is a major butterfly larvae host plant.
- Native perennials with winter interest that mix well with grasses include coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) (naturalized from the mid-West) and black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), both of which have chocolate winter seed heads.
- Native asters and goldenrods have gold to white, fluffy seed clusters. Some good choices are the showy purple New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), the tiny-flowered white calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) and the sunny seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens). These perennials attract monarchs when in bloom, and, later, colorful songbirds come for the seeds.
Many, hardy native plants add green to nature’s winter palette. The garden trick is to decide how much garden should be evergreen. At least a few specimens are good to balance the reds and show off the neutrals, while providing critical wildlife shelter. A conventional all-evergreen approach can be low maintenance, but leaves the garden short of the seasonal beauty of deciduous plants and the natural diversity necessary for the health of the garden and its wildlife.
Deciduous trees do shade the house and forest during hot summers, let sun through in winter, and add stunning fall color. However, a strategic mix of large conifers blocks the worse winter wind and undesirable lines of sight, while helping deaden sound from, say, an adjacent road. In addition to the American holly mentioned above, there are several native conifers to consider as major year-round statements of strength and beauty. All want good drainage and as much sun as possible. Before planting, check the tree’s mature height and spread as these trees get fairly large.
- Our dominant local pine, the fast-growing white pine (Pinus strobus) with its long soft needles is always a good choice.
- The aromatic eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) has decorative blue berries that provide wildlife with late winter food.
- The white cedar (arborvitae) (Thuja occidentalis), with its graceful fans of overlapping needles, is such a favorite for hedges that not everyone knows it grows into a tall tree.
- Most spruces are naturally thick and trim. For a local native spruce, try the white spruce (Picea glauca). According to Connecticut’s Earthtones Nursery, this Christmas tree-shaped spruce is highly tolerant of salt mist.
- Lastly, there is the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) with its tiny, flat needles and adorable miniature cones. Recently, hemlocks have been plagued by invasive woolly adelgids but seem to do fine in Southern CT if you mimic their natural woodland growing conditions.
The evergreen shrubs can grace the front porch, screen foundations, provide structure to herbaceous boarders, and mix with trees, all without blocking in the view. Connecticut’s notable native broad-leaf evergreens include:
- the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Connecticut’s state flower, is a well-behaved shrub with medium-sized evergreen leaves, and white to pink flowers in late spring.
- the semi-evergreen northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) with small waxy berries, is beloved by the winter birds. It tolerates sandy soil and salt spray.
Finally, don’t over look mosses. Since mosses are slow-growing, never collect them from the wild. You can grow your own in the summer by mixing some dried moss samples with well-composted manure and buttermilk. Paint the mixture on porous terra cotta, wood or brick or pour it over a bed of mixed sand and leaf compost. Keep damp.
So what are your favorite ways of bringing color, and birds, into the winter garden?
PS: There’s no “native” in the garden if you’re using cultivars that distort the plants’ natural character. Such cultivars do not necessarily feed the native wildlife nor are they necessarily ”sustainable”. If the species native plant you want is too tall or too this or too that, look further; you’ll find an actual plant that meets your needs. If you want to plant the golden dwarf version, go ahead, but don’t call it a “native” – it’s not.
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