Early December is too often bleak in our gardens, and this is because gardeners are utterly seduced by spring and early summer, squandering space and uncritical love on the creatures of April and May.
If you look about and see only bare twigs (where late the sweet starlings and crows and pigeons sang) and if the whole place resembles Bremen after the war, you have only your spring enthusiasms to thank, and now you know.
Nothing needs to be said for plants with brightly colored winter twigs, since their contribution is too slight, and the space they occupy is too great, to justify planting them very much in small town gardens. But if there is empty space, a clump of red-twig cornus, C. alba or stolonifera will be pleasant enough in December. The twigs are almost scarlet. There are yellow-twig cornuses also -- I do not like to call them dogwoods, since their flowers are of no consequence, and their foliage and fruit are not the least remarkable or interesting, and dogwood seems to me too grand a name for them.
The great place for these bright-stemmed shrubs is across a pond, backed by conifers, American hawthorns, hollies, magnolias, oaks and so forth. One word of warning, if you plant the red-stemmed dogwoods: site them so the winter sun falls on them, as you view them. If you plant them betwen your viewing point and the winter sun, you will hardly notice the stem color.
A shrub with bright green stems in winter is Kerra japonica, which comes in two forms: with single flowers, like small wild yellow roses, and double, with nickel-sized bright yellow pompons strewn along the branches. The one with single, five-petaled blooms is possibly handsomer.
They bloom in early April, and have scattering of flower thereafter. The great thing about the single form is that it endures (and blooms well in) fairly heavy shade from oaks and other large trees. The growth is arching, up to six feet or so, and some years it blooms with the Kurume azaleas to make a strident blast of hot yellow with the magentas, crimsons, salmons -- an effect you probbably will not like. Other years it is going out of flower as the azaleas start on April 14.
It would not be worth growing merely for its green stems in winter, but the bright stems are a bonus and may as well be taken advantage of in citing the shrub.
Viburnums are marvelous, and the fruiting sorts (especially V. setigerum, wrightii, dilatatum) are good in late November, even though they have been handsome in fruit since August. Depending on the immediate environment, they can still be good looking in December, though by then the fruit has begun to shrivel. V. setigerum, the tea viburnum (Buddhist monks are said to serve tea made from its leaves on Mt. Omei), is peculiarly valuable where you want a shrub that fountains up narrowly to 10 to 12 feet. Its clusters of brilliant red egg-shaped berries, larger than a holly's, weigh the branches down a bit. It is the sort of shrub that looks fine hanging over alley fences.
Most maples have dropped their leaves well before December, but some individuals among Japanese maples hold them quite late. I have one I selected from a batch of seedlings that only colors about Thanksgiving, and holds its leaves almost until Christmas. It depends on the season, but often the gardener can find slight variations of this sort by prowling about nurseries.
Hollies, box, yews are all at their handsomest in late fall and early winter, the green both deep and brilliant. It is very hard, I know, when you begin a garden, not to be overcome by flowering cherries, peaches, crabs, lilacs, laburnums and so forth, but space should always -- always -- be reserved for these wonderful deep greens that do almost everything to make winter bearable.
Nurseries have begun to correct the shocking absence of nandinas, mahonias, and photinias at garden centers. Nandinas now are loaded with panicles of scarlet berries -- trusses of them larger than lilac blooms -- against foliage ranging from olive green to wine to brighter red (in shade the leaves stay soft pleasant green). How often in small front gardens you look out the window and long for brilliant berries -- the Washington thorn, say, or one of the deciduous American hollies that display berries all along the leafless branches. But there is no room for large shrubs or small trees -- and the leafless hollies such as I. verticillata and . decidua are not really handsome enough in spring and summer to justify giving them space in small patches in front of city houses.
The nandina (Nandina domestica) is a godsend. It grows only to six feet and sends many stems up from the ground. It is handsome all times of the year. Cardinals like to sit on it in the winter (sometimes eating the berries, for Nature is quite mixed in her blessings) and it should be so common in Washington that we are all quite tired of it. On the contrary, it is uncommon.
There is a somewhat ratty and stupid-looking dwarf form of it with purplish twisted leaves that, as a result of not giving the matter any thought whatever, nurserymen seem to like to stock. It is best avoided and the plain N. domcestica acquired.
Mahonias -- I have never heard anybody call them "holly grapes" though that is said to be their common name -- have leathery leaves cut like a particularly nice oak, only smaller, and they grow in whorls from the stem which is rarely more six feet high. If mahonias grow taller than you like, it's simple enough to prune the tops off. The leaf looks like fine-grained leather with just a little shine.
Mahonias grow in damp woodland and dry woodlands. They grow up against house walls, they grow in the garden border, they are not particular. They are best in half-shade in deep leaf soil.
By November you can see the flower buds and these open in mild weather, sometimes in January or February, sometimes in March or even April. The commonest one, nowadays, is M. bealeii (named for the man who stored many plants in his garden in Canton for the collector Forrest), which has pinnate leaves, the center leaflet at the end being the largest. Its flowers are borne upright, like a shuttlecock. They are bright lemon to sulfur yellow, like lilies of the valley, vaguely.
M. japonica, which is much the same, bears its flowers in drooping clusters, and as usually seen is a bit taller and narrower. There is little to choose betwen them. M. bealeii will certainly strike the beginning gardener as the handsomer, and the old gardener is likely to decide M. japonica is slightly more graceful as a large plant. Both are superb.
M. aquifolium is less showy than either but handsome enough and the dwarfish M. repens exceeds the others in turning wine-colored in cold weather, but both of these are useful mainly where it is too cold to grow the first two.
In Washington, needless to say, all the common mahonias are hardy.
M. lomariifolia, with more ferny leaves and a more open antler-like habit of growth, is rarely or never seen at local nurseries. The plant is doubtfully hardy, though you will notice that when plants are uncommon they are usually said to be "doubtfully hardy," only to discover year later (when they are all over the place) they are hardy as oaks. Almost.
Venturesome gardeners should certainly try M. lomariifolia and its beautiful hybrid called 'Charity,' especially where sheltered woodland sites with flawless air drainage can be found for them.
Mahonia fruit comes in cluster like small bunches of grapes at the ends of the stems -- blue, very like blueberries only in glaucuous clusters.
If there is a 20-by-30-foot patch in front of the house, it may strike you as a terrible waste to devote it to plants that look good only for two or three weeks a year and that, especially, look like nothing at all in winter.
Nandinas, mahonias, small yews, boxwood, osmanthus, eleagnus, skimmias, photinias, many sort of hollies, dwarf and non-rampant bamboos (Shibataea kumasasa being the bestby far and almost the only one that won't race all over the place) canmake the site delightful in winter instead of a pain.
And this may be the place to mention the Gable azalea called 'Stewartstonian,' under whatever misspelling you find it, is as valuable for its rich deep red leave all fall and winter as for its almost unequalled scarlet blooms in April. Nurserymen have been quick to stock this particular azalea, and for this a good many sins are forgiven them.