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Notes from the Garden - November and December 2013, January 2014

The first hard freeze is knocking on our doors and much of the Garden is getting ready for a winter’s nap. However, there is still much to see and explore at this time of the year, especially when we have a beautiful sunny, winters day.

November: Camellia sasanqua
Late fall brings out the first of the Camellia flowers, those known as fall blooming camellias. While these are wonderful garden plants, they often take a back seat in popularity to the showier Camellia japonica which blooms from December through April. For me, C. sasanqua is a fantastic plant to use in the landscape as it provides late fall color against a backdrop of deep, glossy green foliage. Moreover, depending on the severity of the winter, the bloom season of C. sasanqua may be more predictable in north Alabama than that of C. japonica.

While the flowers and foliage of C. sasanqua are smaller than those of C. japonica, the plant as a whole is no less striking. In the Garden, most noticeably along the pathway in the Four Seasons Garden, are selections of C. sasanqua used as a screen or hedging material. Growing eight to ten feet tall, it needs little pruning to keep its shape and produces a wealth of flowers in white, pink and red for six to eight weeks. Some of my favorite selections include ‘Cleopatra’ (soft, shell pink), ‘Rosea’ (deep pink), ‘Yuletide’ (deep red) and ‘Snow Flurry’ (pure white hybrid).

December: The Mighty Evergreens
For me, winter is a wonderful time to look at the bones or structure of your landscape and the large evergreen shrubs that play a pivotal role in providing mass and color (green foliage) during a time of bareness in the landscape.

Some of my favorite large evergreen shrubs include both conifers (needle-evergreens) and broadleaf evergreens. Broadleaf evergreens have a coarse texture to go along with their massive size, while many of the needle-evergreens provide a fine textured appearance despite their large size in a garden. Both are essential elements to a well-designed landscape and help define garden spaces while providing pockets of green during the dormant season.

Two of my favorite conifers are the large growing Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Yoshino’) and the giant western arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Green Giant’). Both of these pyramidal-shaped evergreens can reach thirty feet tall, grow rather quickly and provide wonderful screening and scale in the landscape. I think both are superior to Leyland cypress which is used so much for screening. As for broadleaf evergreens, I love hollies for their coarse texture, glossy, green foliage and beautiful red fruits. Selections of American holly (Ilex opaca) can grow quite large (twenty to thirty feet tall) as can our old standbys, Foster holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘Fosterii’) and Nellie R. Stevens holly (Ilex x ‘Nellie R Stevens’). When using these selections, please give them enough room to grow. If you are looking for a smaller version, say one that matures at fifteen feet tall, then one of the red holly selections is a better choice.

Also an excellent choice is magnolia, specifically cultivars of Magnolia grandiflora or Southern magnolia. Prized for its dense, growth habit, deep green foliage, beautiful and fragrant white flowers, Southern magnolia is a tradition in this part of the country. Again, size matters, as most selections grow over sixty feet tall and forty feet across. Even ‘Little Gem,’ a cultivar sold as a dwarf magnolia, reaches thirty feet tall. An excellent selection for home landscapes, it still needs to be sited correctly. Another good smaller growing selection is ‘Teddy Bear.’

January: Hellebores
The Garden often looks bleak at this coldest time of the year. Growing in the understory of our woodland gardens is hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus). Arising from a basal cluster of evergreen foliage are flower spikes of nodding, cup-shaped blooms. Varying shades of white and pink can be found on seedling selections, but one can find double forms, flowers of deep burgundy or even yellow on new cultivars. Often called Christmas rose or Lenten rose, these evergreen, herbaceous perennials are a great addition to a shady garden. Moreover, deer do not seem to like them. So mix hellebores with your hostas and see if we can’t fool Bambi into moving on to other areas for dinner.