Serene winter greens
Sunset with new moon,
Against the clear winter sky - My kind of black lace.
Notice how appreciation of evergreens increases during this quiet season? Should we wish to expand enjoyment of the garden at this time of year, we would do well to plant with "an eye to winter." Anything green at this time of year looks wonderful and increases the sheltering feel of the landscape. The garden bustles with cardinals, small chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and wrens flying in and out of the evergreen cover. What receded as background greenery during summer is now much more riveting and dynamic.
Many gardens do contain taller-growing conifers - spruces or firs - or perhaps hollies, but may lack a low-growing range of plants that ease the transition between them and the ground. Facing down the height element can add dimension or depth to the overall planting; it can point up overlooked opportunities for more planting as well.
Planting groundcover evergreens minimizes some of the area planted to lawn, if that is a desired goal. Such plants are excellent subjects to plant adjacent to walkways. The location focuses attention on their smaller scale and interesting features. Foundation planting that utilizes a range of low-growing evergreen plants scarcely needs any mention, as it is a concept widely employed.
There is a lot out there to choose from in the low-growing evergreen category: heaths, heathers, dwarf or prostrate conifers, groundcover azaleas, dwarf or prostrate box, daphnes, leucothoë, to name only a few that easily come to mind.
Right now, skimmias are looking good. They are members of the Rutaceae or Rue family, as are the citrus, and, like them, possess glands throughout the plant, which are aromatic when bruised. There are four species, of Asian origin, but many subspecies and hybrids. Michael Dirr cites three of landscape value in "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants," S. japonica, S. laureola, and S. reevesiana, all of which are cold hardy in our zone. Size is up to three or four feet high and the same size wide, but the rate of growth is slow. These may be considered small shrubs.
Skimmias are not too much planted - more's the pity - and at first glance a skimmia may be taken for one of the dwarfer rhododendrons or mountain laurels. But if showy fruit or flowers are present it is clearly no rhododendron. Is it some sort of brightly berried muffin holly? Meet the skimmia.
Skimmia japonica is the most popular species of skimmia. Dirr lists as cultivars five clones, but there are many more. Plants are usually either male or female and only females bear fruit. Both males and females flower, but females need pollen from a male to fruit. The fruit is a bright red "berry" (drupe, actually) borne in showy clusters well displayed on the ends of the branches and persisting through the winter. Leaves are evergreen, smooth, and lance-shaped to oval. They too cluster toward the ends of the branches and appear somewhat tufted.
When shopping for skimmia, pay attention to the tag. It should say something like, "Skimmia japonica, female" or "Skimmia japonica, male." Cultivars are mostly all male, or all female, clones, and buying a pair won't do any good for producing fruit. A selection criterion for male cultivars is ample pollen production, and the suggested ratio is about one male skimmia for six female plants. The plants need humus-rich, acid soil in a shaded location; the deep green of the foliage becomes olive to light green if the plants receive too much sunlight.
Tending to the needs of the garden's soil is the great task of the off-season garden. Improving the soil is the nitty-gritty, the basic gardening act; that done, the rest pretty much takes care of itself. For beds and borders, for vegetable production - everything except specialist plants - improving the soil means adding humus and having it broken down in time for the coming season's planting or growth deadline.
The gold standard of humus comes from well-rotted livestock manure, but acquiring it is becoming a problem. Cow manure is becoming a thing of the past with the disappearance of local dairies. While there are many horses on the Island, manure piles at stables consist of high ratios of bedding to manure.
Beware of using this until the manure pile has mellowed and broken down for many months, to avoid depleting the nitrogen in your soil. Soil organisms use nitrogen to perform the task of breaking down wood (sawdust, wood shavings, etc.). Instead of a net gain from the nitrogen-rich manure, one could unintentionally cause a net loss.
I take in a large amount of debris due to my gardening business, so I am likely to have a big heap of mixed matter at any one time. Even though it has not passed through the digestive tract of a warm-blooded animal first, it breaks down amazingly fast. It is a great source of humus.
While January weather remains mild, we can at least get this humus onto the soil, and maybe, cultivated in. (Why am I indoors writing about it instead of doing it? The sun is shining and it is in the 50s.)
If there is snow, remember to free heavily laden branches gently, before it freezes onto the limbs, especially on evergreens.
I met a friend in the post office just after New Year's; she carried in her arms a large box from Johnny's Selected Seeds. This well-organized gardener was already set to go. I was quite impressed. The rest of us can emulate her example - and do our seed suppliers and ourselves a big favor at the same time - by ordering early for best selection and receiving early-order discounts. Eliminating the last-minute spring rush that plagues seed suppliers is a godsend to them.