When people visit our home, they must pass through a large portion of the garden before arriving at the front door. Around this time of year, the first question I get asked once they get inside is: “How come your garden isn’t dead? It’s winter!”
What prompts this question are the elements of my garden I call “winter interest” plants. These are plants with patterned or exfoliating bark, evergreen foliage, interesting architectural form or colorful berries. Winter interest plants keep a garden interesting, preventing it from looking completely dormant.
In my Northeast garden, the winter season typically lasts from mid December until mid-April. This year, “winter” technically arrived in the fall and brought with it freezing temperatures and early snow, thanks to a large southern dip in the jet stream.
My garden is somewhat mature, having been cultivated for close to 60 years by two different owners. It is divided into several distinct areas. The area up around the house comprises about a half an acre. More than two-thirds of the plants and trees in this area are evergreen in nature.
These plants make up a diverse group and include everything from ground covers and perennials to shrubs and trees. There are both needled and flat-leaved conifers, broad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendrons, laurels and hollies, vines, and even an elegant native magnolia that doesn’t drop its leaves until late spring. The one thing these diverse elements have in common is they all hold onto their leaves over the winter, making the garden seem “alive” even on the coldest days. A garden containing nothing but deciduous plants just can’t do that.
Somehow over the years, the word “evergreen” became associated with spruce trees and arborvitae. While it is true that both of those commonly planted stalwarts are evergreens, there are dozens and dozens of other evergreen plants that can be incorporated into a landscape.
One of my favorite evergreens helps my garden look interesting all winter and is a real workhorse. It looks good almost all year and does so without needing to send up a flower stalk in order to be noticed. In fact, since it is a fern, the whole plant goes unnoticed during the spring and summer months when other plants are putting on their annual displays.
Ferns as a whole get sold short in the gardening world, but they are some of the most useful plants for the garden. Many tolerate periods of drought while still looking elegant, and they look good planted alone or in large swaths.
Lining the walkway to my front door is one of my favorite ferns, Polystichium polyblepharum, or Japanese tassel fern. Don’t let the plant’s Latin name put you off. This evergreen fern, native to Japan, is one beautiful plant!
Japanese tassel fern begins its growing cycle in the early spring by unfurling fuzzy brown, tightly curled fronds referred to as croziers. While the plant’s fronds unfurl the tips lay backwards creating what looks like “tassels.” After about a week, depending on temperatures, the fronds grow through this phase and unfurl fully into a 12-inch long frond, dark green in color with a “shiny” upper surface.
They are not bothered by pests and can tolerate a fair amount of sun, although they prefer to grow in dappled sunlight or light shade.
They look good all summer, but it isn’t until other plants start dying down in the autumn that the Japanese tassel fern really starts to stand out. The sturdy green fronds pay no attention to cold weather and short, dark days.
Mine flank the walkway to our front door like an honor guard on duty until spring. When spring finally does arrive, the year old fronds fall away and new ones emerge from the crown of the plant, starting the cycle again.
If you want to keep your garden interesting all winter long, consider planting evergreens. And if that word conjures images of boring predictability, you might be surprised by what you’re missing.