I love grey. It is a soft, gentle colour that is truly at peace with itself. It doesn’t have the need to draw attention to itself or to flash itself around. Grey is the color of a coastal winter. It prefers to linger in the background, to hug the water and to hover between the mountains. In the mountains grey can resonate wonderfully with the dark green of the Douglas Fir, Cedar and Spruce trees that predominate our landscape. Green is said to have great healing power, and is the colour of life, renewal, nature and energy. Together green and grey provide a relaxing, yet deeply energized view, whether in our gardens or in the scenery beyond them.
The first time I created a herbaceous perennial flower bed I made one major mistake. The garden was a riot of color from June until October but when the first hard frost hit it became a depressing mass of dead brown stalks against the dark grey sky. I soon learned to put at least a few evergreen plants in the bed as anchors to hold some color and interest down throughout the winter months and started to plan in some hardy winter bloomers. Winter empty bed syndrome is a common theme in annual gardens, and although some people like the look of an empty bed in winter, to me it just seems dead and out of place. Use a little green in that garden, with maybe a few spots of color here and there, and suddenly your garden comes alive against the grey sky.
I find winter a great opportunity to enrich my garden beds with mulch of all kinds, and I find the look of leaves laying in a dormant bed quite attractive. It certainly is better for any garden bed to be covered with mulch in the winter. It protects the plants from being heaved out of the soil during freezing weather, it keeps the rain from washing away nutrients from the garden bed, and keeps plants from coming out of dormancy before the last hard frost, thereby preventing some frost damage. Mulch also keeps soil microbes cozy and well fed, which is a benefit to the soil, and in turn, the plants that grow in it. I was stunned to hear that some people actually find the look of leaves in a garden bed in winter “messy” but the customer is always right, so I found that if the leaves were mowed over with a mower, then put into the bed it looked more like mulch and less like leaves, and many customers were satisfied. Some, however, were still unhappy with the look so I devised another solution.
I started to cut greens and boughs from evergreen trees and shrubs, along with branches of wild rose, snow berry, hawthorne, and firethorn and would simply insert them into the ground to fill in the spaces left between wintering over herbaceous plants or areas where annuals had been removed. This also works well in containers, and is an easy way to add color in the winter. Greens that are cut in November seem to stay green most of the winter, and provide a wonderful green color that contrasts well with our grey skies. Plants with berries provide a few bright spots, as well as some welcome food for the birds. I try to plant a few shrubs at every garden that will provide evergreen colour, and these same shrubs are useful when making flower designs from your garden at any time of the year. I also like ones with berries, for both myself and the birds. Here are some shrubs that I find exceptionally useful.
Gaultheria shallon – Salal – Yes, I know it grows in the forest all over the place, but it actually makes a really nice shrub planted in your yard, and a nice evergreen backdrop and anchor for a garden bed. I have seen it clipped and controlled into a great compact hedge. It is slow growing, so won’t get out of hand quickly, and has wonderful dark green, thick leathery leaves that are legendary in floral design for their longevity after cutting, especially if kept cool. The bonus is that this plant is from the Family Ericaceae, which grows without fuss in our acidic soils, and has flowers beloved by bees. It also bears a crop of dark blue berries which First Nations people used to make something that resembles fruit leather. As they are as they are high in pectin as well as acid salal berries make a mean batch of jelly. Try boiling them up with blackberries and a bit of nice organic cane sugar and cooking until thick, quickly straining the seeds out, then pouring the mix into a sterilized jar, no store bought pectin needed. You can find these at local nurseries, and these plants really do better from pots than from digging up in the wild.
Skimmia japonica – This is not a native plant, but it does really well in those shady areas that we all seem to have. It has wonderful dark green leaves all year round, but really comes into its own in the winter. This plant has intense dark pink to red buds that look wonderfully festive from November through the winter, and then it earns bonus points for fragrant pink to white flowers in the spring. It is tough as nails, and fairly drought resistant. It has beautiful red berries that follow the flowers, although the birds don’t seem to like them. The advantage is that they stay on the plant quite well into summer, adding some color to our shady spots. This plant will do well even under evergreen trees, which is a spot that is often difficult to garden in. The cut foliage will stay fresh looking for a considerable time after being cut, especially if used outside in the winter.
Vaccinium ovatum – Evergreen huckleberry – This shrub is related to the blueberry. We have quite a few blueberry relatives that grow wild here on the coast, and they all have wonderful edible berries.
Vaccinium ovatum is a star because of its wonderful evergreen foliage. It may turn a little bronzy at some times of the year, but that just adds to its attractiveness. It is another Ericaceous plant, so it is easy to grow in un-limed soil, it helps feed the bees, and has wonderful berries! What’s not to love? The foliage keeps well and looks great as the pointed oval leaves provide excellent texture to both the garden border as well as arrangements.
Viburnum tinus – This shrub is another evergreen shrub that carries bud clusters of pink all winter long, just like Skimmia. The pink is so intense that it actually can look like the shrub is flowering all winter long. When it finally does bloom in late winter, or early spring the blooms are lighter pink to white. and contrast somewhat with some of the still unopened pink buds. The flowers last quite long into summer. This is a tough shrub. I have seen it severely abused and badly pruned, and with a little restorative pruning it comes right back into play. It will grow happily in sand, silt or clay. It likes a bit of dappled shade or light shade from intense summer afternoon sun, but if you can’t give it that, it will probably do fine anyway. I used to say to people who were buying Viburnum tinue, that if this plant dies on you, come back, return it, and I will give you two to take its place. The flowers and foliage of Viburnum look great in arrangements, and later in the season you will also get some dark blue berries. Sometime these berries persist and they are still showing when the shrub begins to bloom.
We have a wonderful mild winter climate here on the West Coast of Canada. Let’s embrace the grey, and celebrate the green by planting some hardy evergreen shrubs that can feed the birds, as well as human bodies and souls.