Down To Earth

Late fall's spare garden inspires spring's design


Late fall is so revealing. When summer’s wrapping is ripped away and flung to the side, keyhole views widen into panoramas. Secret gardens open to the public and crowded yards like mine begin to feel as spacious as a Scandinavian living room with a few sticks of rustic furniture arranged around a hearth. And now that we can see to the edges again, what’s missing is more noticeable.

I can tell by the glimpses I’m now getting of others’ gardens that mine still doesn’t have enough evergreens for structure and balance. It’s getting there but I have to question certain decisions such as plunking a single variegated carex smack in the middle of my back border, at the front edge no less. I never noticed its oddity when everything else was blooming. (That’s not entirely true. I noticed, I just didn’t care.) My front border has only one evergreen if I don’t count the winter honeysuckle, which sometimes holds onto its leaves for a while. When I planted a tiny little boxwood, Buxus microphylla ‘Sprinter’, I was expecting it to live up to its name and become a 2- to 4-foot ball in no time. Well. That it’s still alive in my terrible dry soil is some kind of miracle but it contributes hardly at all to the winter decor. It’s more like a doorstop than a comfy ottoman.

Most of my deciduous shrubs become twiggy and unremarkable when stripped of their wrapping. I have threatened to re-gift my mophead hydrangeas if their summer display is ever as bleak again as their winter one. Though it will do little to improve their looks this time of year, some of you might actually choose to wrap them in burlap to protect next summer’s buds from untimely freezes.

Other shrubs have the opposite problem of taking up precious space and risking eviction right up until their boring old leaves drop. Now aren’t we glad to have a winterberry or ten? Ilex verticillata justifies its real estate by displaying bright red—or orange, or gold—berries from now until much later in the winter when the birds have finished off every other available food source.

Even though red twig dogwoods’ (Cornus sericea, C. sanguinea, and C. alba) “insignificant” flowers and fruit are bee and bird magnets, and some alba cultivars have variegated foliage, that’s not why we plant them. We do it for their naked winter stems, which range in color from brilliant red through pink, orange, and yellow to lime green, depending on species and cultivar. These dogwoods are showiest in full sun (give the variegated forms a little mid-summer mid-day shade) and they appreciate a position within reach of the rain barrel’s soaker hose. Early spring pruning encourages extra-colorful new growth but I cut a few stems now for holiday arrangements.

It’s only after the floppy tatters of foliage fall that I understand why some gardeners endure Henry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’). Its corkscrew stems become even more dramatic draped in spring’s flower tassels but even so I’d choose a contorted quince instead. Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Contorta’ has a typical-quince multi-stemmed habit but stays a compact 2- to 4-feet tall and wide. For even more dramatic twists and turns there’s hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata). I’m mad for this shrub’s deep green stems and knobs of yellow fruit but haven’t let myself add one for a couple of reasons: It gets big, 8- to 15-feet tall, and I don’t have that kind of space anymore. And it has thorns like bear claws. If you need burglar control and/or don’t mind wearing body armor while you garden, go for it. Give it full sun and average soil, not too dry.

It probably should go without saying that all of these shrubs, including hydrangeas, will look even more beautiful in the snow. And nothing helps us organize our thoughts on garden design like the blank slate of a white winter. But until we get slammed I’m happy to have a more clement reveal. I’m seeing all the plants I want.

Kristin Green is the horticulturist at Mount Hope Farm and author of 'Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter'. Follow her blog at

Kristin Green


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

2016 by East Bay Newspapers

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Prudence Island · Riverside · Rumford · Seekonk · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.