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Color in the Winter Garden

Although it´s December, I´m not ready to leave my garden.

I still have planting and mulching to do as well as preparing new garden beds. Working outside at this time of year gives me time to savor the long-lasting, brilliant fall foliage and to observe subtle hints of winter color sprinkled throughout the garden.

Unlike other seasons when there are great swaths of riotous flower color, the hues of winter are more subtle and found frequently in other forms such as berries, bark, foliage, seedpods and garden ornaments. Today, I am focusing on some of my favorite trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses that are easiest to grow and provide the most colorful impact.

Berries. In addition to providing winter color, berries are welcome food for the birds. Some trees and shrubs to consider are the following:

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), native to this area, is an evergreen shrub or small tree with clumps of red or orange berries that are as showy as hollies. Chinese pistache is a very adaptable tree with yellow, red or orange fall foliage and wispy sprays of tiny red berries that ripen to blue-black. Nandina is also a useful shrub that comes in many sizes and shapes with red or orange berries for winter color.

Not all berries are red. Some shrubs have berries with other colors. The most eye-catching is Callicarpa (beautyberry) when it loses its leaves to expose clusters of intensely violet berries on gracefully arching branches. Growing to 5 feet tall and wide, it blooms and fruits on the current season´s growth. Other shrubs to consider are barberries. In addition to red or orange, some barberries have blue berries borne on last year´s growth. Either deciduous or evergreen, in many different sizes from 18 inches to 10 feet tall, barberries can meet many needs in an informal garden. Look carefully at the plant description before deciding which one will be the “right plant for the right place.” Those with the showiest foliage (purple, yellow, red, etc.,) are usually deciduous.

Foliage. Although elevation and the severity of the winter make it difficult to guarantee colorful foliage throughout the winter, some plants are reasonably reliable prospects. Two to consider are Nandina and Mahonia. Nandina domestica is an adaptable shrub with several varieties ranging from 2-6 feet tall with foliage that turns red when the weather gets cold. Most varieties appreciate some afternoon shade, have berries and feathery foliage and can acclimate to become drought tolerant.

Mahonia (oregon grape) is a native that´s great for winter color. (In native plant books, it may be called Berberis, in other books, Mahonia). This evergreen shrub comes in 3 sizes, 3-7 feet tall, 1-3 feet tall and a groundcover, 1-2 feet tall. Creeping Mahonia (Berberis aquifolium var. repans), the groundcover, turns deep red in winter with leaves that look like holly. The larger Mahonias turn dark purple in winter. Although relatively slow growing, they are hardy, adaptable plants that prefer some shade in lower elevations.

Other foliage plants to consider for winter interest are ornamental grasses, which add movement, texture and quiet color. Consider the California State Grass, purple needle grass (Nasella pulchra) that is green until it starts blooming in late winter. It is drought tolerant, grows to about 3 tall, goes dormant in summer and prefers full sun.

Check with your local nursery for other grasses that grow well in the Mother Lode. There are many to consider, such as Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and those from the Miscanthus and Carex species.

Bark: In winter, nothing is more stunning than the red branches of the native creek dogwood (Cornus sericea). It is a deciduous shrub that quickly grows to 15 feet in moist locations. The older, established crape myrtles also produce peeling, colorful bark worth a second look. And the mahogany bark of manzanitas, often overlooked in summer, takes on a special beauty with the low winter sun.

Now that the rainy season has begun, it´s a great time to plant some of these suggested trees and shrubs in your garden. It´s also a good time for transplanting those that need to be moved to better places. Most can be planted or moved until the soil gets too cold or wet. If not feasible, or there´s no more room in your garden, consider adding colorful garden structures, furniture, ornaments or empty glazed pots that can add a spot of color where needed. I arranged several cobalt blue pots against a bare, gray wall. Even empty, the result is dramatic.

Spending time in the garden year round provides opportunities for new insights and observations to stimulate planning and learning. Look for emerging buds, colorful stems, or unique bark, and take note of which plants have berries, seedpods and unusual forms or plant structure. Many of them have a special beauty or make their most significant contributions to the garden in winter. Be there to see it.

Information like this is also available in the Master Gardener book, “Sharing the Knowledge: Gardening in the Mother Lode.” Master Gardeners will be at Mountain Bookshop in the Junction Shopping Center on Saturday and Sunday, December 9 and 10, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. to sign copies of the book. Stop by to pick one up for yourself or as a holiday gift for a gardening friend.

See you in the garden—even in winter.

Marlys Bell is a Master Gardener who gardens year round.