Garden Notes

Helleborus x hybridus
A pink Helleborus x hybridus enjoys the mild winter. Photo by Susan Safford

Seeing clearly in winter

By Abigail Higgins - January 18, 2007

With a more leisurely schedule and some time to think about my own garden, shrubs and shrub plantings have been on my mind. Winter edits out the distractions of foliage and flowering plants. They are removed from view and, in every garden, strengths and weaknesses of structure are clearer and more evident.

Here at home we have a pretty plain place actually. During the gardening season I am not working here much; and there are lots of deer visiting, every night, year-round. I have one of this and one of that, all acquired with the idea that eventually I am to propagate more of them for my own plantings. In an irony of "do as I say, not as I do," my place does not include the design statements that come from the repetition/massing, or planting in sweeps, of a particular plant that I would often choose for a client's garden.

And this, as winter has recently helped me to see, is a lack. Enough with the dinkiness: I want some sweeps. What can I use? How, when I love so many different plants, will I ever land squarely on one choice that I will purchase in multiples? Will my choice be distinctive and tasteful? Will it escape the confines of cliché imposed by what is available?

I am far from making a final decision. I share here some thumbnail sketches of shrubs I have considered in case there are readers at a similar pre-selection stage. I am also thinking in terms of deer, shade tolerance, and whether I want to limit the choices to natives.

Disanthus cercidifolius, the redbud hazel, is not often seen but is, as its species name implies, reminiscent of Cercis (redbud) in leaf. A member of the Hamamelidaceae family, it is listed on the Univ. of Rhode Island List of Sustainable Trees and Shrubs (although without any specific reference to deer). The heart-shaped foliage is lustrous, deep blue-green in summer, turning blazing claret, purple, and orange in fall. It is described as needing an acidic, organic-rich, moist but well-drained soil, preferably in part sun/shade, and achieving a size of about six to eight feet high and wide, perhaps more. Hardiness is zone 4-7 and the small lavender flowers are negligible, according to "Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs" (Timber Press, Portland, Ore., 1997, 494 ppg.).

Then there are the corylopsis, several species of which I think would be suitable here: C. pauciflora, C. spicata, and possibly C. glabrescens, all of them also from the Hamamelidaceae. The winter hazels, as they are commonly known due to their early spring flowering, should be planted in part sun/shade, and they prefer acidic, organic-rich, well-drained soil. Flowers are predominantly in dangling racemes and are a pale primrose yellow and, mostly, fragrant. C. pauciflora is the smallest, at four to six feet high and wide; Dirr extols it for the woodland garden. I imagine mine under-planted with hellebores. Corylopsis is also on the URI list of sustainables.

For some unknown reason, one does not hear much about cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, although it is a shade-tolerant, broadleaved evergreen and is not, in my experience, bothered by deer. Cherry laurel, in the immense Rosaceae family, has pointed glossy evergreen foliage of smart dark green, like a Beacon Hill front door, that is similar in shape to culinary laurel or bay leaf, Laurus nobilis. There are several cultivars, some of them dwarf, all suitable for hedging, backdrop, or as evergreen accents in shrubberies and woodland gardens.

The one I prefer, named 'Otto Luyken,' grows to about four feet high with a somewhat wider spread and a definitely horizontal aspect. Fragrant white flowers occur from April to June, followed by small black fruits. 'Schipkaensis' is a taller-growing form, somewhat confusingly described as either taller and wider or as more refined and upright in habit than 'Otto Luyken.' The plants are tolerant of most soils, preferring moist, well-drained ones with plenty of organic matter.

Unanswerable questions

Here in the Northeast we are collectively in a questioning frame of mind. What is going to happen? There are so many unusual notable factors facing all of us (not only gardeners) that one is seldom at a loss for conversational gambits at social gatherings. The weather, the moths, the caterpillars, unusual plant activity, global algae die-of - there is no lack of subjects of discussion: we lack only answers.

We cannot even make any educated guesses, really, only uneducated ones subject to our opinions. I think it might be safe to say that in times of abrupt change, entities with the capacity for agility, versatility, and resourcefulness will evolve more successfully than entities lacking those qualities. As wildlife biologists report, flora and fauna being heated out of their present ranges are migrating northward (and upward, to higher elevations) to remain within their ecological parameters, an example of adaptation in the short-term.

One of my bright young helpers gave me a book at Christmas that attempts to address our major current quandaries in those terms. Its title is "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization" by Thomas Homer-Dixon (Island Press, Washington D.C., 2006, 429 ppg.) Despite the weighty-sounding title, it is interesting and well-written.

The long and the short of it is that old saw about opportunity: "one man's ceiling is another man's floor." Citing many examples, including the Roman Empire, Homer-Dixon writes that as systems become increasingly complex, they run the risk of teetering over into the chasm of chaos: "Down." The Roman Empire consumed itself in its quest for the energy to fuel its own increasingly complex operations, according to Homer-Dixon's reading of the decline and fall. Can we learn enough from the lessons of history to pull an end-run, and redo things to head off "Down"? What he does not do is adopt a feel-good attitude toward adversity but what may be the most rational, realistic approach to its solution.