It is an easy matter to have a garden here in central New Jersey that looks fresh and lovely in the spring. If water holds out, it will also be attractive in the summer and fall.
However, the period from November to April, long and dreary, is not enlivened by flowers unless the gardener makes a special effort.
There are many different evergreens or nearly evergreen ferns, vines, plants, shrubs, and trees, as well as some that flower in the winter, that brings much joy.
Well-Known Evergreen Trees
Among the less well-known evergreen trees that grow here are the lace-bark pine (Pinus bungeana).
Resembling a white pine, but with greener needles, as the tree matures the bark flakes off to make a lacy pattern of beige and brown.
The Himalayan pine (Pinus Griffithii) also resembles a white pine, though the needles, longer and bluer, droop gracefully.
Japanese Umbrella Pine
The Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) resembles a pine but is not a pine at all.
Rather it is a dense tree, with fleshy green needles that glisten in the sun. It grows best in part shade.
The California incense-cedar (Libocedrus decurrens) grows to a gigantic, tall, narrow spire in a hundred years, looking something like the Italian cypress.
The Southern magnolia (Magnolia Grandiflora), whose glossy evergreen leaves adorn the streets of Washington, grows in sheltered spots, though some leaves brown a little when winter sun strikes them on a cold day.
Sargent’s Weeping Hemlock
The Victorian favorite, Sargent’s weeping hemlock (Tsuga canadensis pendula) grows to 8′ or 10′ feet and is equally wide, with graceful drooping branches.
A prostrate form of the Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis prostrata) is very hardy and effective if you want a feathery effect not more than 2′ feet high.
The small-leaved Carolina rhododendron (Rhododendron carolinianum) resents being moved, but, once established, will be a picture in May with either pale pink or white flowers.
Preferring part shade, I found that, contrary to popular belief, cutting it back after moving seemed to encourage new growth.
Piedmont rhododendron (Rhododendron minus), another small-leaved kind, produces pink flowers later. It is a fast grower.
Oregon holly-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is a handsome broad-leaved evergreen often seen, but leather-leaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) is rarely planted.
It is taller, with an open habit and yellow flowers and blue fruit.
The only specimen of Cascades mahonia (Mahonia Nervosa) I have seen died in my garden the first winter.
Dwarf than the other two, it turns a rich wine-red in winter. It should survive in a more sheltered spot.
Heavenly Bamboo Or Nandina
Heavenly bamboo or nandina (Nandina Domestica) is evergreen with me if sheltered from the wind.
A plant for the south, it is worth trying, because its feathery leaves turn a wine purple in winter.
If the first heavy frost does not come too soon, it will also bear red berries.
Cotoneaster Salicifolia Floccosus
Cotoneaster salicifolia floccosus, a rather low, sprawling shrub, with arching branches, keeps its leaves all winter here and is adorned with brilliant red berries.
Box-huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera) is a small evergreen shrub, about 18″ inches high, with tiny shining leaves, some of which turn bronze in winter.
In the spring, it bears small, bell-shaped, pinkish-white flowers.
This plant grows natively in our southern mountains, where two specimens are known with a spread of one mile each.
They are said to be between five and 10 thousand years old, probably the oldest living plants in the country.
Cowberry (Vaccinium Vitis-idaea) is a lower-growing evergreen creeper that demands so much moisture and peat moss to be difficult in this region.
It needs some shade, yet the leaves sparkle when the sun hits them.
I am always surprised that our native partridge berry (Mitchella repens) is not used more as a ground cover.
Requiring shade and very acidic soil, it flourishes under hemlocks, where few plants grow at all.
Small, round, evergreen leaves hug the earth, while fragrant pale pink flowers in spring and scarlet berries in fall are an added attraction.
Try Evergreen Herbs
The sunny border can also provide color in winter if the evergreen herbs, such as lavender, evergreen thyme, and rosemary are used.
Some pinks are decorative all winter with their cushions of gray-green leaves.
For me, the real excitement comes with the early-flowering shrubs.
First to bloom is the Chinese witch-hazel (Hamamelis Mollis), which usually starts in a January thaw to open a few yellow fragrant flowers.
These tend to curl on cold days and open on sunny days so that the flowering lasts nearly two months.
It is at its height, however, in February when a flower of any kind is most welcome.
Chinese witch-hazel likes the sun but will tolerate some shade.
Flowers In Winter
Another winter-flowering shrub, which blooms in late January or early February, is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox).
Small, yellowish flowers are not spectacular, but intensely fragrant as they unfold in the sun.
It is difficult to say when the fragrant viburnum (Viburnum fragrans) flowers, as its pinkish-white clusters of tiny flowers open from time to time throughout the winter, giving forth their delicious perfume.
Normally flowering in early April, give it a sunny spot where it will grow to about 10 feet.
Korean Abelia Leaf
In February comes the little-known shrub, Korean abelia-leaf (Abeliophyllum distichum).
The small buds are purple, but the flowers, which cover the slender branches, are white and very fragrant.
Related to the forsythias, this shrub is hardy, if given sun and good drainage, though it is a good plan to protect it from winter winds to prevent bud blasting.
Difficult to propagate, it grows about three or four feet high and makes a good companion for forsythias.
Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) can hardly be listed among the unusual shrubs, but its showers of yellow flowers are always cheering in February or early March.
It does best to grow against a wall.
Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) perfumes the air, with its inconspicuous white flowers in March.
A dense shrub, 8′ or 10′ feet high, retains its leaves until midwinter, making it desirable for screening.
Branches are easy to force in the water, and plants, not fussy about location, will grow in sun or part shade.
One of the best small plants for winter is the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) with evergreen leaves and flowers two or three inches across.
Growing 8″ or 10″ inches high, it usually produces its crisp white flowers in February with me.
The lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) is easier to grow and less spectacular, with greenish-white or pinkish or maroon flowers in March.
Both appreciate some shade, plenty of moisture, and rich soil.
Late Flowering Cherry
November and December are the most difficult months for flowering trees and shrubs, but the native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), less showy than the Chinese, will spread its yellow fringes.
Another, the autumn higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella autumnalis) will reward you with occasional pale pink flowers, not showy, but a heartwarming sight in this season.
44659 by Mary Marquand Hochschild