Northern Shade Gardening

Conifers Keep Winter Green

Saturday, December 27, 2008 Category: Garden Design,Trees and Shrubs
frontyard conifers

front yard conifers

When winter snow lasts for half of the year, conifers are a remembrance that the white doesn’t last forever, and that buried underneath there are dormant green plants that will emerge eventually. Without the conifers, winter would be a vista of twigs and houses. I enjoy walking down the street and admiring the pretty sight of snowy evergreen branches on front lawns. They create a verdant background all year, provide privacy, and are an excellent habitat for birds.

Here are my large spruce trees, filling most of the front yard with green boughs. My spruce wear their branches right down to the ground, which makes a natural and full silhouette. The grass doesn’t grow underneath them, but the snowy boughs look much better in the winter than snow-covered grass. Natural spruce trees, with all of their branches, make a very tall groundcover.

These trees tower over the house. From a landscaping point of view, they are out of scale, and obscure the view of the house. However, from a forest lover’s point of view, I enjoy the woodsy atmosphere in the middle of the suburbs. I am thankful the previous owner had the foresight to plant trees for the future.

Picea closeup

Picea closeup

When I look out my front windows I can imagine that I live in an evergreen forest. I can watch the birds on the branches, blue jays scolding, or chickadees chattering and flitting from branch to branch. In the fall, the squirrels are very busy storing away the spruce cones. One squirrel made a precariously balanced pile of cones under the willow in the backyard. I’m not sure why he bothered running back and forth to the backyard, instead of just storing them conveniently under the curtained safety of the spruce  tree.

The spruce produce numerous cones at their top, which scatter around the tree on  windy days. I gather the cones and use them to mulch a hidden area to the east side of the house, about 6 m (20 ft) long and 1 m (3 ft) wide. Perhaps the squirrel has admired my large stash of cones. Maybe he’s even raided it for his own supply. The spruce and pine needles fall onto a narrow sidewalk that leads to my backyard. I often sweep the needles off the walk into the adjacent north facing garden area, making a natural and easy woodland mulch for the front bed.

Pinus mugo (mugho pine)

Pinus mugo (mugho pine)

There is the base of an overgrown Pinus mugo (mugho pine) in my front yard. It is taller than the house, and forms a green curtain between the street and my front window, blocking noise, attracting birds, and presenting another forest view. The mugho pine has a tangle of lower branches, and long, soft needles. The dwarf mugho pines, that have been kept small by breaking the outer third of their new candles, look neat and cute in a garden bed, like small green statues. This older, taller Pinus mugo has not had its candles cut back,  and the inside lower trunks make a forest of their own. The curved multiple trunks arising from the base form a living woodland sculpture.

While the front of the pine has a wall of green needles, the lower needles at the back are mostly gone in this shady spot, making for easier viewing from the house of the birds, which like to flit about on the protected branches. There are small middens of cone scales under the tree. The branches make a comfortable place for an animal to break open cones to get at the seeds, and the scales fall in small piles beneath.

Pine branch

Pine branch

A tall straight pine grows in the corner of my backyard. Its branches are lacy, casting a partial shadow on the plants below. The long needles are attractive. This evergreen gives me something green and beautiful to view, when I look out on the bleakest winter days. The pine also gives some privacy, when all of the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves to survive the winter. Sometimes in summer, a robin likes to perch on the topmost branch, proclaiming its territory from the tallest point around.

Taxus media hicksii (yew)

Taxus media hicksii (yew)

This upright evergreen is Taxus media ‘Hiksii’, one of the many small yews in the garden. In summer, they practically disappear in the garden, serving more as a green backdrop. However in winter, they are the little green jewels, rising above the snow. While the yews are tolerant of shade, the ones in deeper shade are about half the size of the ones in medium shade.

Taxus media 'Nigra' (nigra spreading yew)

Taxus media ‘Nigra’

I also have some Taxus media ‘Nigra’, which are a darker green yew, and a bit more spreading than upright. The soft needles are particularly attractive. There is less browning and die back on the yews over the winter than on junipers. The yews also fill in their bare patches, maintaining a more attractive shape. Taxus media are a good yew for zone 3, since some other yews are borderline or not hardy here.

I love my conifers. They bring wildlife, privacy and beauty to the garden year round. I most appreciate conifers in the winter garden, when the colour green is rare, and especially treasured.

Merry Christmas

Wednesday, December 24, 2008 Category: General

Here are some of the ornaments on my Christmas tree.

brown bird in nest

brown bird in nest

The birds are from when I was young and belonged to the Young Naturalist Society. My father enrolled me in their bird of the month club. Each month I received a new bird in the mail, and now about 50 of them perch or nest in the Christmas tree. I got my love of nature, the outdoors and gardening from my father.

heart wreath

heart wreath

The tiny wreaths, boxes and cross stitch are ornaments I made. The little present ornaments are wrapped with paper that I hand printed. I carved the design and used ink to print them on tissue paper.

fireplace fire

fireplace fire

Here is a fire in my fireplace to add extra warmth on our cold frosty days of -30° C (-22° F). On Christmas the wind chill is supposed to be -39° C (-38° F). This will be a good test for the hardiness of some of the new plants I added this year.

Christmas bears

Christmas bears

The Christmas bear family wish you a Merry Christmas.

Unexpected November Blooms

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 Category: Perennials

A few surprising perennial blooms have braved the repeated frosts of zone 3. Normally November is a bleak month in the garden. Permanent snow has usually settled in by now.  This year, we have had only a few flakes, and the odd snowfall has not stayed for longer than a day. Although we have had frosts for two months now, a few daring bellflower blossoms have incredibly ignored the cold.

This Campanula rotundifolia (harebell) still has a few delicate purplish blue bells rising above the brown tree leaves. I don’t think I’ve ever had flowers still blooming at the end of November in Edmonton. This hardy defiance of the cold has endeared the plant to me even more.  Amidst the dried fallen leaves, the green leaves and pretty flowers are a startling reminder of the bright colours of summer. These are a naturally hardy perennial, but some daytime temperatures above freezing, and a lack of snow have allowed them to carry forward through 8 weeks of nightly frosts. I have a compulsion to cover my garden in these astonishing survivors.

Campanula poscharskyana 'Camgood' (blue waterfall Dalmation bellflower)

Campanula poscharskyana

The Campanula poscharskyana ‘Camgood’ (blue waterfall Dalmatian bellflower) above are also carrying a few scattered flowers into winter. They persevere, with glimpses of blue, despite the repeated frosts. These resolute bellflowers have leaves that are almost all green, a rare colour in the November garden.

Besides the bellflowers, a few other perennials have kept their green leaves until the end of November. Usually conifers  supply the main greenery in the garden from November to April. There are few broad leafed plants that keep their leaves through the winter in zone 3. Without the typical snow covering, the green foliage of a few plants is still on display.  The Linum perenne (flax), undaunted, are showing their bluish green foliage. Although the feathery leaves look delicate, they are a tough survivor in zone 3. This perennial is providing the only green in my sunny area.

The thick, round leaves of Asarum europaeum (European ginger) are also persistent. This green ground cover is a welcome change in November from the shades of brown covering most of the ground in the shade. I will have to plant more of this delightful ground cover next year. They are not as glossy after repeated frosts as they were in the summer, but even a simple green is admirable now that this colour is so scarce.

Pulmonaria 'Samourai' November end

Pulmonaria 'Samourai'

The long leaves of Pulmonaria ‘Samourai’ are still silvery green in the shade under the trees. The silver tones are not as prominent now after all the cold, but every bit of green at this time of year is a welcome sight. With such a short growing season, extending the season with plants that keep their appearance ensures that the garden stays interesting as long as possible into winter.

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' November end

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince'

The Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ are displaying wonderful foliage, with no decay. The perky green leaves are a welcome change from the dried brown twigs and leaves of other plants which surround them. I just planted the Helleborus two months ago,  and they continue to enliven the shade with their stiff scalloped leaves and red stems. Since these might be borderline hardy, I’m going to pile some extra tree leaves over them for the winter.

At  53° N latitude, and far from the moderating effects of a large body of water,  November is normally a harsh month in my zone 3 garden. My bloom chart, where I keep track of the flowering time of my perennials, only goes up to September, because we rarely have any flowers make it through October. This year I would have to extend it to November, due to the warmer conditions and a few bellflowers that won’t give up. All summer they have delighted me with their constant blue beauty, and now they give a reason to tour the garden in late November, searching for these unlikely, but persistent blossoms. Do you have any extra hardy survivors, or did any plants surprise you?