YOU HAVE noticed, probably, a sudden falling off of propaganda, in the last two years, on behalf of the camellia.
All of a sudden this indispensable winter-flowering shrub has become dispensable.
Just for the record, at this singularly bleak point in capital camellia fanfare (endless numbers of camellias having been killed to the ground in the past two winters) let me say the camellia is still one of the shrubs most worth growing in local gardens, and that in three or four years we will look back and marvel we were ever gloomy about them. At the moment, however, we may turn to other things.
Sometines people complain that a border of evergreens along the side or front of their lot is oppressively dense, and others complain that their shrub border (of flowering bushes) looks like a mere collection of brushweed of odd sticks.
I do think we too often ignore the fact that from November to April such a planting is going to be without interest unless we take steps to make it cheerful in, say, January, and I do not think the solution is a solid wall of yew or holly.
And apart from midwinter, there is that awkward period from Oct. 20 to Thanksgiving to be thought of.
The prostrate junipers, creeping about on a slope and occasionally lifting their heads a bit to see what's up there, are to my mind priceless plants for sunny and rather dry slopes such as you often find along city sidewalks. I would resist the gardener's normal temptation to plant a dozen different kinds of these junipers along a 30-to-50-foot strip, but would choose one or two, with other things besides junipers.
I like the Andorra juniper, which turns rosy violet in cool weather, and young plants from pots or cans could be set two or three feet apart, then leaving a space of some feet and having another clump. In between there could be small patches of crocuses to brighten the days of late February and early March.
One of our native wild andromedas, Leucothoe axillaris, has evergreen glossy lance-shaped leaves that turn wine and purplish in winter, making a sort of small weeping fountain, and grow taller than the junipers and consort well with them.
Some of the prostrate cotoneasters -- C. horizontalis or C. salicifolia -- would bring a touch of bright berries and woody twigs. If you thought the violet and winecolored evergreens were getting a bit much, you could use any number of barberries with bare winter stems or some of the evergreen kinds.
The dwargest types of yew (Taxus baccata repandens and T. cuspidata densa among them) could give intense dark green.
The somewhat despised form of the Oriental arbor vitae called 'Berkman's' with its gold spring foliage and somewhat insistent shape (like an egg, or a seriously squeezed pudding) is easily overdone, no doubt, but I have alsays liked its dense luxuriance and its green-black-bronze-gold look in winter. It gives great solidity and weight to a mixed planting, and so does the slower growing Hinoki cypress in its dwarf forms like Chamaecyparis obtusa nana, which is blackgreen with whorled tufts of foliage.
Above these plants of the slope, up on the brow of the rise (maybe eight feet from the sidewalk) I would consider a few shrubs that lose all their leaves. Because we do not want something that looks like the planting around a dog cemetery.
Among shrubs I would like in such a position are the Maries variety of the Japanese snowball, with horizontal branches and flat (not snowball-shaped) patches of white flower in May. Also there are Japanese maples sometimes to be found in nurseries that would do.
The green-leaf kinds please me best, especially the seven-leaflet kinds of Acer palmatum. They grow slowly and can be discreetly whacked to keep them from their usual aim of making a dense round canopy. They are admirable for an occasional branch of handsome small leaves that lightens the mass of other things, and in December the foliage turns burntorange and crimson and so on (if freezes are early, sometimes they do not color at all).
The Chinese witch hazel and its hybrids are handsome, and while they eventually turn into small trees, they too can be pruned smaller, and in any case the gardener's problem is how to get them big, not how to keep them small. Their fall leaves are orange and purplered and tawny, and their flowers in late winter are a substantial comfort to the early bess and, of course, the gardener.
Judd's viburnum, V. juddii, has fall leaves of various oranges and reds, and small tennis balls of intensely sweet pinkish flowers in late April. Other viburnums -- but remember these become 6 to 12 feet high, depending on variety -- are equally splendid.
Both the tea viburnum (V. setigerum) and Wright's viburnum (V. wrightii) have handsome berries in that awkward period around Labor Day, well before the fall-coloring leaves have started. The tea viburnum has brighter showier scarlet berries, but Wright's is a more compact plant and has better crimson foliage in late October, and clusters of dark crimson berries.
Another suitable plant is the euonymus with fall leaves (in November) of dusky pink-red, as beautiful as any plant known to gardening, E. alatus. This is usually grown in its dwarf (up to 7 feet or so) form called compactus.
The beauty of box (Busus sempervirens) hardly needs to be pointed out. It deserves and requires good treatment, plenty of air and light, and occasional mulches of manure. It could figure near the walk up to the house, say, but you would not want to lose its distinctive billowy shape by crowding it in with other things.
Other evergreens for the brow might be such hollies as 'Foster No. 2' and 'Nellie R. Stevens,' both hybrids and a bit different.
If you dislike hollies (and I admit their fallen leaves make weeding something like hell, over the years) you could use one of the evergreen photininas (P. serrulata becomes a globular mound 15 feet high in time) or such a cherry laurel as 'Otto Lutyens' or the fine-foliaged berryladen nandinas.
Mahonias, especially M. bealed the commonest one in nurseries, provide quite different texture with large dull holly-like leaves that look fine throughout the year, and yellow racemes of bloom in February followed by dense clusters of blue berries.
An occasional azalea, allowed to become a 6-foot bush, could be used, such as the white "Treasure' and there are several kinds of purple-leaf barberries (Berberis thunbergii atrepurpurea) that can shoot up and fan out where the gardener is interested in that effect, and their bare stems in winter have a lightening effect on the evergreens.
I know it upsets tree worsipers, but local gardeners often let the common ivy grow up tree trunks and I am all in favor of it when the tree is mature -- it would not do on a saplig -- and nothing gives a more cheerful, settled, rich effect than the ivy with its black berries and flawless black-green olive mass.
It is apparent, probably, that not all these plants could be used in a shrub screen along a 30-foot lot. It is also clear, I hope, that the gardener could make his shrub border more dense and green, or more light and open, by varying the mixture of such plants to suit his own taste.
Also there are people made extremely anxious if more than two kinds of plants are used per acre. They should, of course, continue their monotonous ways, clucking at hodge-podges to their hert's content, and these suggestions are not for them.
It is not possible, by the way, to achieve a richly textured effect that will last indefinitely. Plants grow.
If your young hollies are 20 feet apart and you fill in with other things, the time will come when something has to yield. You may have to move a large azalea, or saw down an old mahonia, or chop out the viburnum. This is obvious and always comes as an outrageous surprise to the gardener, as I well know.
On the other hand, I do not see much sense in planting stuff at the proper distance for a fine effect 50 years from now. Such plantings come to perfect maturity just in time for some jerk to bulldoze the place to sell french fries on.
The gardener must, therefore, plant in the knowledge that some of his treasures will have to be sawed out later. Unless he has been living on some othe planet, or is still 4 years of age, that should not be too difficult a concept for him to grasp.