Changing to Winter in the Garden

The garden has transformed from late fall colours to a mostly monochrome winter white. The conifers, Picea (spruce), Pinus (pine) and Taxus (yew) are what provide most of the colour now.

October fall garden collage
October fall garden collage

In the middle of October, the Hydrangea paniculata flowers still had tinges of pink, the Phlox paniculata were white and purple, while the leaves of Tiarella and Heuchera were providing decorative patterns in the garden. The various Campanula were mostly still sporting pretty blue flowers, for an almost summer look.

late October snow in garden collage
late October snow in garden collage

Then at the end of October, the garden had a light frosting of white. It decorated the leaves of evergreen plants, like Cornus canadensis (bunchberry), Tiarella (foamflower), Heuchera (coral bells),  Helleborus (hellebores) and Epimedium (bishop’s hat). The snow etched the edges of the birdbaths, but there was still water for the birds to visit.

deep snow in garden collage
deep snow in garden collage

Now, we have over 30 cm (a foot) of snow, enough to cover the low perennials, and beat the taller perennials to the ground. The birds will have to bring a snow shovel if they want a bath. We’ve changed to winter, and the plants that take centre stage are the tall conifers. They will remain the stars for the next 5 to 6 months. The large spruce and pine, so prevalent in the Boreal Forest just north of here, easily withstand the weight of snow on their branches. It collects on their outstretched branches, and then eventually rolls down the sloping boughs of the spruce, or sifts through the widely spaced needles of the pines.

tall conifers with snow
tall conifers with snow

Here are some tall Picea (spruce) in my front yard showing their best trait, which is to upraise piles of white snow with their long green boughs. These living sculptures are a wonderful antidote to the blandness of winter. The conifers are over 35 years old, so they are imposing on the landscape. Although I live on an average sized lot in the suburbs, they create a forest atmosphere. Wildlife appreciates them, too, all year round.

Pinus mugo with snow
Pinus mugo with snow

My tall Pinus mugo (mugho pine) has multiple stems. It’s a rangy forest pine, rather than one of those cute little mini mugho shrubs for the mixed border. I’ve been wanting to add a more compact mugo to a different garden area, but this large one is a match for the spruce trees here. In the garden underneath there are lots of Tiarella (foamflowers) covered up for winter.

animal tracks under evergreens
animal tracks under evergreens

Here is where a pine and spruce meet in front of my house. You can follow the animal tracks under the trees to a cozy conifer cave.

animal tracks under spruce tunnel
animal tracks under spruce tunnel

More tracks lead under some spruce branches that are about 60 cm (2 ft) off the ground. There are many short perennials planted under these trees that are buried until spring. The snow helps insulate the Heuchera (coral bells), Tiarella (foamflower), Brunnera, Hosta, dwarf Aruncus (goatsbeard), Epimedium (bishop’s hat), Asarum (wild ginger), Hepatica (liverleaf) and others in the garden here. In the summer I’m always looking down to see the perennials, and don’t notice the evergreens as much. In winter it’s the conifers, twice the height of the house, that catch your attention, and force you to look up.

snow on railing
snow on railing

We’ve transitioned from late fall into full blown winter. Snow is piling up on every surface, and last night it was -19° C (-2° F). Instead of hunching over, and staring at the snow as I rush from car to house, I can look up at the sparkling conifers and the blue sky. When the sun shines, and the snow glistens, it can be enjoyable to be outside and delight in the winter sights.

Silver Leaves for Garden Between Spruce

digging new garden bed by spruce
digging new garden bed by spruce

I’ve been digging up more lawn and expanding the garden bed between some spruce trees. This section is going to have mainly plants with silver leaves. The perennials here will have to enjoy the shade, but this part of the garden does get some sun in the morning. I had a number of other silver plants already chosen for this site, but as I renovated and expanded other garden beds, the stash got raided and I used them all up, so my plans changed a little.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Looking Glass' leaf closeup
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’ leaf closeup

The main plants here will be 14 Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’. ‘Looking Glass’ have leaves with lots of silver on them, and a pretty pattern of dark green lines along the veins and edges in early spring, very much like Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. Then in summer the silver expands to cover most of the leaf and the green lines are very thin. The silver leaves are almost like little mirrors for your garden, reflecting the light and brightening up shady areas. The terrific foliage will last past the first light frosts in autumn. We’ve had a number of days of frost and a night as low as -4° C (25° F), yet my Brunnera in the garden still have gorgeous leaves. I love the Brunnera for this long season of interest in the garden. Since our growing season can be very short in zone 3, any plants that produce leaves quickly in spring and hold them past a few frosts in autumn are highly desirable. The Brunnera do very well under trees, too. They also hit the sweet spot of being very easy to grow, but never annoying or spreading too far.

Brunnera macrophylla with pot bound roots
Brunnera macrophylla with pot bound roots

While I got some great deals on these perennials, the one problem with end of season plants is that the roots can be pot bound. With the plant out of its pot and on its side, you can see the roots are encircling the root ball. I cut the edges, and teased the roots out, to encourage them to grow outwards once they are planted. I’m not too worried about the tight pot causing problems for the Brunnera, as I’ve planted them in much tighter spaces in my garden.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' between willow roots
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ between willow roots

In my back garden, one Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, shown above, is planted in a tiny pocket in between large willow roots with almost no soil. In fact, there wasn’t room for the whole root ball when I planted it, so I shook most of the soil off and squished the almost bare roots into the narrow confines. Then I sprinkled a little soil on top to hide the evidence of the crime. Most plants would not be happy with this treatment, but that Brunnera is still growing 5 years later. It is smaller than my other Brunnera, but gets the same beautiful leaves. Only Little Runty and I, and now you, know the truth of what it’s like under the soil surface.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Looking Glass' flower closeup
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’ flower closeup

The pretty blue sprays of flowers, looking like forget me nots, last for about 6 weeks in spring. Originally I had some Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ to plant in the front garden, but planted them elsewhere. Then at an end of season sale, I got a great deal on a number of ‘Looking Glass’. I was surprised that there would be so many of these wonderful plants left on the deep discount table. Obviously I haven’t done enough to explain how perfect the Brunnera are as garden plants, or they would have been snatched up much quicker by other gardeners. On the other hand, it was lucky for me to find so many remaining.

new plants arranged in pots by spruce
new plants arranged in pots by spruce

I’ve left a few vacant spots where I’m going to put some stepping stones. Now you might be asking, “Northern Shade, if you wanted to show the new ‘Looking Glass’ plants, why did you take such a blurry picture of them, and such a crisp picture of the spruce needles?”, because that’s what I’m asking myself now. I have refrained from digging them all up and sticking them back in their pots just to get a better picture.

The plants are actually bigger than they appear, since many of the largest leaves were deteriorating in their pots at the end of the season and had to be cut back, leaving just a few small leaves showing. When first planted, perennials often look so isolated as tiny plants at their required distance. However the Brunnera won’t take long to reach their full size, which can be 50 or 60 cm (around 2 ft) across. The broad leaves can form a nice solid patch that keeps out all weeds.

Heuchera 'Green Spice' leaf colour
Heuchera ‘Green Spice’ leaf colour

I was going to plant some Heuchera ‘Green Spice’ (Eco-Improved’), which has  green leaves with a silver overlay and purple veins for part of this planting. Although the ‘Green Spice’ flowers are not showy, the leaves are wonderful. I planned on using it as a transition between the purple leafed Heuchera ‘Raspberry Ice’ which you can see in the top left corner of the photo above, and the silver Brunnera macrophylla. However the ‘Green Spice’ got co-opted for another garden bed. I looked around, but couldn’t find a nice silver and green Heuchera with a little bit of purple on it, because it was so late in the season. I decided to just put in the ‘Looking Glass’, and next year I’ll add some ‘Green Spice’ as a bridge in between the purple and silver.

Lamium maculatum 'Orchid Frost' plants newly planted
Lamium maculatum ‘Orchid Frost’ plants newly planted

I’ve also added the groundcover Lamium ‘maculatum ‘Orchid Frost’, with beautiful silver leaves that have narrow green bands around the edges. I got a great deal on the ‘Orchid Frost’ plants at an end of season sale, and would have planted a larger patch if there had been more remaining. However, the Lamium should spread easily.

In fact that is why I haven’t planted any Lamium up until now. I admired the wonderful silver colour of the new cultivars, but was wary that they might spread too quickly. I like the “hardy” quality in plants, but I don’t like the “move in and take over the whole garden” trait. These new cultivars are supposed to be well behaved and far removed from the more annoying Lamium, so I’ve decided to give them a try. Since they are backed by a gigantic spruce tree behind, and a walkway in front, there isn’t too much space to get annoying either. Their hardiness will come in handy here.

Lamium maculatum 'Orchid Frost' flowers
Lamium maculatum ‘Orchid Frost’ flowers

The flowers of ‘Orchid Frost’, looking like dragon faces, are a light pinkish purple colour. I don’t expect the tiny flowers to be very showy, but I planted them mainly for the leaf colour. I was looking for some more L. ‘White Nancy’, which has similar foliage with white flowers, but couldn’t find any left now. One advantage of the ‘Orchid Frost’ is that it is supposed to be more resistant to leaf diseases than other Lamium, which is a bonus for a foliage plant.

Chionodoxa 'Alba' bulb packages between Lamium maculatum 'Orchid Frost'
Chionodoxa ‘Alba’ bulb packages between Lamium maculatum ‘Orchid Frost’
Chionodoxa 'Alba' package and bulbs in front garden
Chionodoxa ‘Alba’ package and bulbs in front garden

To add early spring flowers to this part of the garden, I planted some Chionodoxa ‘Alba‘ (glory of the snow) in between the Lamium. These are the white form of glory of the snow. I grow lots of the blue Chionodoxa forbesii and I’ve also planted some C. ‘Alba’ with  blue Scilla siberica (squills) in my backyard, but here they will flower against the blue of the spruce needles. Tucking bulbs in between perennials extends the flower show.

Crocus sieberii 'Tricolor' bulb package between Brunnera
Crocus sieberii ‘Tricolor’ bulb package between Brunnera
Crocus chrysanthus 'Gipsy Girl' bulb package between Brunnera
Crocus chrysanthus ‘Gipsy Girl’ bulb package between Brunnera

In between the ‘Looking Glass’, I’ve planted some purple Crocus sieberii ‘Tricolor’ and yellow Crocus chrysanthus ‘Gipsy Girl’ (snow crocus). They will flower first before the Chionodoxa. After the Crocus flower, the Brunnera will quickly grow large leaves that will hide the crocus foliage as it dies back.

ladybugs in grass while digging
ladybugs in grass while digging

The lawn was full of these ladybugs. Just about every piece of sod that I dug up had to be inspected for ladybugs before I turned it over. Then I had to carefully coax them out from between the grass blades and spruce needles, and deposit them on some nearby plants. It probably doubled the time required for digging. It was a beautiful gardening day for October, so I didn’t mind spending time outdoors, and got into a rhythm of dig, inspect, move, turn, and repeat.

The lady bugs are digging in for winter now, and finding protected spots under the leaves to brave the Edmonton winters. The perennials are dieing back and retreating underground in preparation for the approaching cold. I’m not quite ready to retreat indoors yet for winter, but I’m already anticipating spring when my new perennials will return with some nice silver leaves against the silvery blue spruce needles.

Pretty Perennial Leaves for the Shade

Here are some foliage plants for the shade garden with pretty leaves. These perennials add beautiful texture, colour and shine to shady areas, even when not in bloom.

spring garden foliage
spring garden foliage

On the upper left is a combination of Asarum europaeum (European ginger) in front and Athyrium ‘Lady in Red’ (lady in red fern) behind. I especially like the pairing of shiny, rounded heart shaped leaves of the ginger with the feathery fern fronds. ‘Lady in Red’ has a fresh, light green colour, but the centre of each frond is red when they first emerge. The foliage pairing is appealing all season long, and both do well with very little light.

On the upper right is Heuchera ‘Green Spice’ (coral bells). Most of the Heuchera have great foliage, but ‘Green Spice’ stands out for its wonderful contrast of purple red veins on a light silvery green background. The darker green border around each leaf completes the colourful package. The large scalloped leaves look super next any plant with feathery leaves.

In the middle on the left are Tiarella ‘Jeepers Creepers’ (foamflower) leaves with deeply cut lobes and a dark contrasting line down the middle of each section. These perennial leaves make an attractive evergreen groundcover, topped by pretty spikes of flowers.

In the centre of the collage is a  Hosta ‘Patriot’ that is still unfurling. I like the creamy white bands around the margins of the leaves, since get you attention as you scan along in the darker areas of the shade garden. ‘Patriot’ adds a dappled effect in the shadows. The large leaves look good next to delicate or finely cut foliage.

On the right side of the centre row is Heuchera ‘Cinnabar Silver’ (coral bells ) with green and purple leaves that have pronounced vein marks. Not all Heuchera have showy flowers, but these get very attractive red flowers later in the summer. A leftover blue Scilla flower is draped over the ‘Cinnabar Silver’.

On the bottom left is Heucehra ‘Raspberry Ice’ (coral bells), which also has the complete package of both wonderful leaves and flowers. Like many Heuchera, the leaves can change colour through the season, depending on the temperature. You can see some of the silver and green leaves, as well as the purplish red ones. One perk with the Heuchera is that the evergreen leaves will decorate the shady garden all year.

On the bottom right is a closeup of the fantastic foliage of Asarum europaeum (European ginger). These shiny leaves have finally been spreading over the last few years to fill in and create a terrific groundcover. I highly recommend these short plants for the front of the border. Although they are a little slow to start spreading for the first few years, they will gradually fill in to great a really nice edging in even your shadiest areas. The high gloss finish adds some sparkle to the darker sections.

perennials with silver leaves
perennials with silver leaves

Above is a collage of  some silver perennial leaves, which are great for bringing highlights to a shady corner. Whether solid, spotted, or patterned silver, the light colour bounces back the few light rays to make it into the shaded sites under the trees, making them stand out and be noticed.

At the top is Pulmonaria ‘Samourai’ (lungwort) with mostly solid silver leaves. Each leaf is long and narrow, with a slender border of green and a central green vein. This make a light coloured background for the blue flowers. These silver grey ‘Samourai’ looks great next to solid green or dark leaves.

In the middle row on the left is Zantedeschia araceae ‘Golden Chalice’ (calla lily). I use these as a centre foliage plant in a planter for a very shady area. They don’t produce much in the way of flowers there, but the tall, silver spotted leaves are a great centre piece for the flowering annuals in the pot. I also have a calla lily in another part shade container, where they produce funnel type blooms.

In the centre of the collage is a Brunnera macropylla ‘Jack Frost’ (bugloss) leaf. This is the king of foliage plants for the shade. Everything about the leaves is perfect, from the beautiful silver colour, to the wonderful patterns of contrasting green along the veins. I always have to stop and admire them when puttering around the garden.

On the right side of the middle row is a Pulmonaria ‘Majeste’ (lungwort) leaf. ‘Majeste’ starts off as spotted silver in spring, and gets more of an overall silver colour later in summer. The freckles are cute, and keep the green foliage from fading into the background.

On the bottom left is a Heuchera ‘Mint Frost’ leaf. It is a light silver green, with darker green veins. These are highly variable perennials, as in the spring and fall they can have orange, red and purple leaves, too. However for most of the summer this is the standard colour.

On the lower right is the solid silver leaf of  Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’. It produces large leaves, with slender green lines along the veins. This is a real knockout in the shade as it reflects a lot of light.

alocasia calidora elephant ear leaf
Alocasia calidora elephant ear leaf

Here is a very attractive giant leaf of Alocasia calidora (elephant ear). It’s large, wet, and just look at those patterns. The rubbery leaves are about 50 cm (20 in) long right now, and get bigger all summer. I have these Alocasia in a few of my planters in part shade, where they make super focal point for the centre. Elephant ears bring a wonderfully lush tropical look to a planter. In zone 3 they are treated like an annual, although you could overwinter the bulbs inside.  If you’re wondering what the green ‘worms’ are behind the leaf, those are the catkins that just fell from a willow tree.

These are some of the perennial leaves that caught my eye this week when I was out gardening. Although there are lots of spring flowers right now, the foliage of these plants will look great right through until fall. You can see more pictures of great foliage for your shady garden here, and even more photos of  shade plant leaves here.