Get growing: color in winter

  • The large and colorful leaves of Heuchera or Coral Bells flowering plants are wet with raindrops in the perennial garden. Kenneth Keifer—Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the Gazette
Published: 11/21/2018 2:43:34 PM

We gardeners tend to think of late fall as bleeding color out of the landscape. The iconic autumn leaves have turned brown and fallen, leaving trees looking like gray skeletons. Green grass is now a soft golden gray. Even the hardiest fall perennials have succumbed to a few hard frosts and blackened. But this time of year is also when bits of color suddenly take center stage in the garden, looking all the bolder by contrast with their fading surroundings.

This fall I have found some surprising color in my garden. A ‘Southern Comfort’ Heuchera whose color was billed as “cinnamon-peach” had looked washed out all summer, more pale apricot than cinnamon-peach. But in the past few weeks, this meh plant suddenly lit up its corner of the garden with glowing red foliage. I did a quick internet search and did not find this seasonal scarlet transformation listed in the plant’s many attributes. Perhaps the plant isn’t a ‘Southern Comfort’ after all. I think I’ll call mine ‘Northern Comfort.’ It certainly has earned a place in my New England garden.

Another pleasant pop of color came with three ‘Midnight Ruby’ Rhododendrons I planted last year in a bed of Vinca minor. After they finished flowering in the spring I noticed that their leaves were the same shape and color as the vinca: shiny, green and oval. The total effect was monochromatic in the extreme. A bed of solid green. What was I thinking? I assume the name ‘Midnight Ruby’ refers to the color of their blooms, but to my delight, the foliage has now turned a deep, purplish black color. The contrast with the evergreen groundcover is eye-catching, and I am finally satisfied with the pairing.

Speaking of evergreens, this is their season to shine. Gray-green white pine, ebony-green yew and a host of other evergreens we tend to overlook the rest of the year provide color and shape and density to the landscape when it’s otherwise rather bleak. When spring comes and I’m thinking about adding new things to the garden, I am hungry for colorful flowers. Stalwart evergreens do not sing to me the way azaleas do. But when winter comes I always appreciate the presence of evergreens in the landscape and in my own garden. As the snow falls and you’re observing the contours of your garden, consider adding some evergreens in the spring to liven up the winterscape.

The cusp of fall and winter also brings us fall-blooming witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). This plant, somewhere between a large bush and small tree, is not much to look at most of the year. But in November it shimmers with delicate yellow blossoms. Their petals are narrow and crinkly, like many-legged spiders, giving them an otherwordly character.

For sheer eye-candy, nothing beats the bright red fruits of the winterberry (Ilex verticillata). This deciduous holly grows wild in swampy, wooded areas and also can be grown in the garden. I see them in other people’s yards and have covetous thoughts. I have never tried these in my garden. Like holly, they need both male and female plants to produce berries. There are new cultivars that are supposed to be thickly covered with berries. Some are red, others are gold or coral. Next spring perhaps I’ll buy a male and one or more females and see if I can add some magic to my own winter garden.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming Garden EventsBark and buds: winter tree id

This is a also a wonderful time to examine many plants that lend bark, buds, fruit and structural interest to the garden in fall and winter. On Dec. 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge will host a class on identifying winter trees by twig and bud anatomy, bark features and plant architecture. Students will learn to use a winter tree dichotomous key. For the uninitiated, a dichotomous key is a tool that helps identify things in the natural world, including plants, mammals and rocks. A dichotomous key gives the observer two choices for each step in the identification process, narrowing down the characteristics so that the exact specimen can be pinpointed. This program will be held primarily indoors, and students will work with collected specimens. Bring a bag lunch and dress for occasional outdoor fieldwork. The class will be led by Brad Roeller, a private landscape garden supervisor for Altamont Estate in New York. He is the former Garden Manager for the New York Botanical Garden and has spent his entire career in horticulture, with a focus in sustainable gardening. Members: $25/nonmembers: $35. For more information and to register, go to:

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