Saturday, December 31, 2011


It’s 2012,  beginning of a brand new year, and time to make those annual resolutions.  Sure, we all resolve to exercise more, eat healthier, use vices less - but how many of those do we actually want to do or keep?  Here are my top 10 garden resolutions that I guarantee you will want to try and have no trouble keeping during the year!!!
Resolution No. 1 - Add mulch to all of your natural areas in January.  Whether pine straw or bark nuggets, a fresh layer of mulch gives a clean, uniform appearance  to your yard while protecting your plant’s precious roots.  Just as humans appreciate warm footwear in the winter months, so do plants to insulate their feet!

Resolution No. 2 - Do you wish something was blooming in your garden right now?  Here are some winter flowering plants to brighten the bleak winter days:  
Lenten Roses (Hellebores orientalis) a shade loving perennial groundcover which blooms February through April in shades of cream, yellow, pink or purple.  Seeds drop and self sow which results in more plants to enjoy or divide! 

Camellia (japonica or sasanqua) evergreen shrubs which bloom from November through March depending on the species. My ‘ShiShiGashira’ Camellia started popping out eye-catching rosy pink flowers right before Thanksgiving and is still blooming on New Year’s Day!  

Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) a beautiful vining shrub which is perfect to spill over walls or stabilize a sloped natural area.  Will naturally root where stems touch the ground.  Cheerful, yellow buds are a  welcome winter sight in the new year!

Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana) a deciduous magnolia which offers tulip shaped blooms in February and March. 

Daffodil (Narcissus spp.) a bulb which greets us with fragrant, sunny blossoms in winter.

Resolution No. 3 - Consider adding a fragrant tree or shrub to your landscape.  Winter is a great time to add this component to your garden so it can establish roots, begin growing this spring and offer a wonderful sense of smell in your yard!  
Some of my favorites?  Winter Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) seen pictured below and Winter Daphne (Daphne odora), which are blooming RIGHT NOW and give off a sweet scent reminiscent of Froot Loops cereal. 

Other wonderful choices are Gardenia jasminoides (shrub), Magnolia grandiflora (tree), and Confederate Jasmine (vine) seen pictured below.

Resolution No. 4 - Are you noticing and admiring all the beautiful lettuce, kale and cabbage mixed in with cool season annuals as seen in this gorgeous planter?

Wish you had some?  Vow to have some of your own in 2012!  While you can still find some in garden shops in January and is perfectly fine to try them now - circle the calendar for November 2012, because that is the best time to plant cool season annuals such as kale and cabbage alongside favorites such as parsley, snapdragons and pansies.
Resolution No. 5 - Wonder why some lawns are so lush and have very few weeds?  

It is due to spreading pre-emergence which prevents weed seeds from germinating in the spring and taking hold in your yard.  Several also have a light “feed” component - which will nourish your dormant grass during the winter.  Try 2 applications of pre-emergence spaced 4-6 weeks apart.  I plan to pre-emerge on January 15th and February 15th.   In late March, my lawn will thank me.
Resolution No. 6 - Winter is an ideal time to thin or train deciduous shade trees.  With the leaves off, it is easy to see which branches are bent, wayward or growing inappropriately and lop those suckers off!  Look for stems that cross each other,  are rubbing together or shoot upright from the branches.  Remove those plus any split or broken branches that threaten to fall.  

Then the dominant, healthy branches can grow in an appropriate manner and form a beautiful canopy.
Resolution No. 7 - Silver white winters that melt into spring.  But why not add a plant which blooms white after winter? White flowers are classic and elegant and complement any color scheme or house style.  Some of my choices are:  
Iris spp.

“Snowball” Viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum)

Spirea spp.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

Resolution No. 8 - Take an inventory of your landscape and note bare spots and vacant areas.  Resolve to try a new annual this spring when the time comes!  In early May, after the threat of frost has passed, I plan to try these annuals:  
Gomphrena, which is a “thriller” with fuchsia blooms on delicate, tall stems.

Portulaca, which is a heat and drought tolerant white blooming “filler”  

and Cuban Oregano, which is a trailing, variegated vine which will “spill” over the edges of the planter.  

These all love sun and heat, so they should be right at home in my front planters this spring through frost!  All would equally do well in the ground in a mixed border.
Resolution No. 9 - Try growing your own herbs in your garden this spring to enjoy! Put them in a sunny to semi-sunny location whether in the ground or a pot!  My top 3 herbs are: 
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) because they have beautiful rosy purple spring blooms atop grasslike foliage. Leaves can be snipped to add flavor to salads, cream cheese or anywhere a delicate onion flavor is desired. 

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), curly or flat leaved, which complements any border or container plant, has culinary use as a seasoning edible, doubles as a decorative garnish, and performs as a host plant for caterpillars ensuring a bevy of black swallowtail butterflies in your yard.  

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officianalis) a fragrant, evergreen herb has many uses from baking to marinades.  Tough, tolerant and a terrific addition to any garden!

Resolution No. 10 - Consider adding a native tree or shrub with a bountiful berry crop to your yard this year.  Why use native plants? Because these plants presently or have historically existed in our ecosystem which means they have adapted to our local conditions.  Those with berries also contribute to the maintenance of a healthy wildlife habitat by providing winter food!  Which ones to try?  Here are my top 3:  
Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) - sheds its leaves in fall revealing brilliant, scarlet berries which cling to bare stems.  Give this tall shrub (small tree) sun to partial shade and a male holly pollinator and you and the birds will enjoy  this stunning plant all fall and winter.  

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) - native woodland shrub with jaw-dropping clustered purple berries and yellow leaves in fall into winter.

Blueberries (Vaccinum spp.) Several are native and provide food for birds AND humans.  Need at least two cultivars for cross pollination and fruiting.  Beautiful fall color is another benefit.

I hope these suggestions will lead your garden and landscape to a happy, healthy 2012!
Check back in February when I will share my ideas for a native, natural landscape plan I have been working on for a client.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


During December, our attention turns toward celebrating the holiday season with friends and family.  Often decoration of our home is included in that celebration!  In addition to the usual Christmas tree, people enjoy embellishing mantels, mailboxes, stair railings, doors and frames.  Basically any blank surface can be adorned with the beautiful greenery and fruit on display this time of year to highlight areas of your home.  Why not use plant materials with natural, ornamental value to bedazzle your space?
Here are a few choices which I think are particularly beautiful and would provide the perfect “green” touch to your holiday decorations!

Include trees and shrubs with narrow needle like or scaly “leaves”, cones and are typically (though not always) evergreen.  In this group would be cypress, juniper, pine, and cedar, among others.  All conifers bear seeds in cones or in cone like structures (juniper berries for example) and the waxy foliage holds up well after being cut and used for decoration.  Here are some noteworthy conifers:
Leyland Cypress
Cupressocyparis leylandii

Soft, graceful, feathery foliage drapes and shapes as desired and can be used on mantels, stair railings or door frames.  Its vivid green foliage is offset by sparse, tiny cones. Holds its color well as it dries.  Many also use this as Christmas trees; however, I find the needles and branches too pliable to hold heavy ornaments.  This is a fast growing TREE that is evergreen and used often for screening or hedging.  Give it plenty of room on your property.  Average size is 65 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
Arizona Cypress
Cupressus arizonica

Amazing silvery, blue spiky needles are offset against striking cinnamon bark.  Cut branches placed in a copper urn or planter would add a cool alternative to typical greenery. ‘Carolina Sapphire‘ offers steely blue needles and a broad symmetrical form.  The foliage on this medium sized tree is stiffer and more structured than the Leyland Cypress.

This genus has everything from low ground covers to tall trees and produces fleshy, berry like fruits instead of woody cones.  The foliage consists of small prickly needles ranging in color from silvery blue to a deep, dark green.  Often used in wreaths, but also try cutting some branches for mailbox decoration.  Holds color well after being cut.  If planting in your landscape, plant in full sun and will grow in virtually any soil. ‘Blue Point‘ Juniper is a nice columnar shrub and ‘Brodie‘ or ‘Idyllwild‘ are improved cultivars of the native tree, Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). 
Canadian or Eastern Hemlock
Tsuga canadensis

Loose, graceful, drooping branches bear tiny, delicate cones among the short, medium green needles. Overall shape is exactly like the “typical” Christmas tree form.  As the name implies, this tree is native to North America and prefers a cool environment.  Birmingham is about the furthest south this tree will tolerate and here must have moist, rich soil and a shaded, forested setting.  Gets fairly tall and wide - so give this tree some space!
Loblolly Pine
Pinus taeda

You see this pine all over our area!  Medium sized, rust brown cones in clusters of 2-5   are found among the soft, pliable, yellowish green needles.  I wanted an evergreen base for my front planters to build my arrangement and this worked perfectly because I could shape the needles to the curve of the planter.  Also effective as a spray in mailbox decoration.  Think twice before bringing cut branches indoors as sticky sap is a nuisance.
Colorado Blue Spruce
Picea pugens

My neighbor has this tree and it is most unusual.  A member of the pine family, it has  silvery blue needles on stiff, dense, horizontal branches forming a pyramidal medium sized tree.  I can only imagine what beautiful arrangements and decoration she may have using branches cut from this beauty.  This holiday, they have lights strung on the tree and it is truly stunning in the front yard this season.
Deodar Cedar
Cedrus deodara

This cedar is also a member of the pine family and is a large, fast growing tree.  The cones are most unusual and grow among the softer, lighter textured leaves.  I am not sure I would ever recommend planting this in a home landscape as it can overpower the yard, but do appreciate the beauty of the foliage and cones as decoration.
Japanese Cryptomeria or Cedar
Cryptomeria japonica

This has quickly become one of my favorite trees to harvest greenery from for decoration.  Its short, spiky needles on fingerlike projections terminate in tiny cones.  I would use these branches as graceful, drooping additions to any holiday arrangement.  I observed some in a mailbox mixture and it provided the perfect touch to the natural, loose look.  Beware how you cut from these trees, though, so you do not ruin the shape or leave bare areas due to excessive trimming.  Easy to grow this excellent, stout specimen tree has peeling, reddish brown bark.

While many of the conifers we discussed above are “evergreens”, here we are talking about broad leaved evergreens which never lose all their leaves at one time.  Although they do shed their foliage regularly, it is not as noticeable since some leaves are maintained, giving the appearance of being green throughout the year.  Many also have the added interest of seed pods or berries and provide shelter and food for wildlife.
Magnolia grandiflora

Coarse, large glossy leaves create a dramatic display for holiday decoration.  Use them on mantels, planters, mailboxes!  The lustrous, deep green whorls of leaves can have the added bonus of a velvety brown underside.  The Southern Magnolia is a staple in the South and thanks to smaller cultivars, even the tiniest yard can find a magnolia which will complement the landscape.  Some of these smaller cultivars are: ‘Little Gem', ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ and ‘Teddy Bear’.
Structured, evergreen plants that have been used for centuries in formal plantings as hedges, walkway edges, and foundation plants.  The evergreen, lance shaped leaves on  stems can be cut and also used in holiday decoration.  While the foliage does tend to dry out quicker when cut than the junipers or cypress, one can still find boxwood used in wreaths and kissing balls!
Buxus sempervirens

Buxux microphylla koreana ‘Winter Gem’


Nandina domestica

Another tough native with the added bonus of clustered, vibrant red berries that droop like grapes from branch ends.  Berries supply winter food for birds - or - make the best long-lasting berry decoration in holiday arrangements.  Berry branches are easily harvested from the shrub.  From mailboxes - to mantels - to urns this is the staple berry designers use when red berries are needed without the addition of leaves.

Few plants produce more reliable berries and are as hardy and dependable as this genus.  Nearly all hollies are either male or female, with the female plants bearing fruit with a male pollenizer plant nearby.  Most, though not all, are evergreen and thrive in sun (best berry production) to part shade.  They tolerate heavy shearing which should be done in winter to shape, control size and use as holiday decoration!  There are hundreds of species, but here are a few of my favorites!
Lusterleaf Holly
Ilex latifolia

Large, oblong leaves resembling those of a Magnolia are set off by clustered, matte scarlet berries.  Use these in mixed arrangements for a “wow” factor!

Foster Holly
Ilex x attenuata ‘Foster’

A narrow, conical plant which bears plentiful “fire engine” red berries. Small leaves terminate in a single spine.  Habit and form very similar to a Yaupon Holly.

Ilex decidua ‘Warren’s Red’

Pale gray branches bear beautiful, bright flaming berries along the deciduous stems.  This makes a striking addition to any arrangement - but beware that these berries are more prone to drop earlier when branches are cut than some of the evergreen cousins.  Medium growth rate and while technically considered a shrub - can also be used as a small tree.

Yaupon Holly
Ilex vomitoria

Native Americans transplanted these because they made a ritualistic tree from the roasted stems and leaves to “cleanse” or “purge” - hence the name - vomitoria.  While I do not recommend that for your holiday season - I do recommend using the cut branches bearing shallow toothed leaves and petite, brilliant red berries in your holiday decorations!
Other Hollies of Note include Burford, Nana Burford, Mary Nell, and Nellie R Stevens.  Countless species with breathtaking berry crops!
Please be aware that the berries featured here are for ornamental value only.  I would never recommend placing them somewhere where pets or small children might confuse them with an edible treat.

I hope this information has been helpful to you.  As always, Hilary Ross of Mater Natura Designs is available for planning, designing or consultation for your garden and landscape needs AND wants!  Let me know if I can be of any assistance to maximize the enjoyment of your garden and landscape. 

Mater Natura Designs
Mother Nature Garden Designs
Creating classic and timeless designs for formal to informal gardens

Contact me at