YOU SEE NOW how wise you were to plant the evergreen creatures I have so often urged you to do; so that you do not gaze outward now at the sere and yellow leaf.
There are times I almost am tempted to take the admirable advice I so freely give. I do not have nearly enough green leaves in the garden now.
I do have, in the front, a couple of nandinas. Their great clusters of smallish red berries cascading down are beautiful, and so are the leaves, olive green flushed with deep bronze, ornamental as ferns. In the Orient they use the old stems for toothpicks, I have read. That is why (they say) you grow them near the house.
The nandina is one of the most beautiful plants possible to be grown up here. Farther south the many-stemmed shrub suffers from ubiquitousness, you see it everywhere and you get tired of it. Farther north, it does not survive the winters. Only here does it flourish, without the reproach of being too common to be fresh.
And yet when I started yammering about the nandina and photinia a few years ago, they were hard to find. Now they are somewhat more common.
There is a midget form of the nandina that some people like. I rather despise it, but suit yourself.
What you want, assuming you are sensible, sane, and not overly given to the itsy-bitsies, is the plain Nandina domestica. It is at its best from October to February. But then it is almost equally lovely with its new growth in spring, the leaves salmon colored before turning softer green, and it is almost equally beautiful all summer as the green berries swell and the foliage remains fresh, bug-free, fungus-free and flawless, right through the worst heats and drouths.
A plant of equal distinction and merit is the common English ivy. Its most beautiful use is as a climber up old trees, and nothing in a garden is more splendid than an ivy that has produced thick branches and black berries.
The green is often touched with purple or deep bronze in winter, especially when grown as a low creeper on a terrace or bank, and especially in young plants. But the greatest glory, to my mind, is the rich saturated black-green or the ivy leaves in an old plant that has luxuriated on an old tree.
This is no rarity, the English ivy; it is a troublesome weed in gardens. And yet when given space to grow freely and to reach maturity, with flowers and fruit, no rarity from Sikkim or anywhere else is more wonderful. The surface of the leaves is waxed, rather than highly polished, and the light falls into an old ivy in the most wonderful way.
It is easy to see glorious specimens of the ivy in this city, since many gardeners are a bit too lazy to do anything about it, and they leave it to work its magic without interference.
A terribly neglected green, on the other hand, is the China fir, Cunninghamia lanceolats. I have mentioned it before. Often I think, when people ask about monkey-puzzle trees, that what they really would like is this China fir. It is just barely hardy, though it is safely hardy here. There are old plants in the town. My favorite is the one with glaucous leaves, blue as a cabbage. My young plant is annoyingly slow to get started, but I know quite well that once it starts, it will grow with felicitous vigor, and then I will pretend to be surprised I have not given it quite enough space.
The Japanese yews, and those called Intermediates (presumably hybrids between the Japanese and English yews) are still unsurpassed for black-green masses of foliage. People are always surprised how rapidly they grow. An upright yew (like 'Hicks') will put on 15 or 20 inches a year when young, until it reaches a height of 15 feet. Every plant in the garden is flattered and enhanced by the presence of the yew.
My favorite of all evergreens is the common red cedar of our fields and pastures, the Virginia juniper (Juniperus virginiana) which is no more a cedar than I am, but which has the common name of red cedar. It's the tree from which pencils are made, and cedar chests.
I can think of no conifer more beautiful, and not many that even rival it; though this is a personal view. I know many gardeners would not dream of planting it, mainly because it grows like a weed in the countryside about the city. It is much handsomer than the Italian cypress, which here does not grow well and commonly blows over once it reaches a certain bulk, and which discolors badly with us in winter.
The red cedar often turns purplish or bronzy or even brownish during the winter. My suggestion is to change your thinking, and let the red cedar behave as it will.
The red cedar bears clipping well, if you have to clip it to keep it from getting too large. In the days when plants were deemed "aristocrats" or not, the red cedar was rarely included in a list of select conifers. Now we do not speak of plants as aristocratic and plebeian, and I like to think taste has improved to the point that I am not alone in considering the common juniper of our fields the most beautiful of all trees that bear needles.
Among hollies, the only ones I find unworthy of the most select garden are the Japanese hollies. Little niggly-piggly things they are. Landscape gardeners used to be passionate on their behalf. I have always supposed they all went to the same college where some perverse old fool who happened to like Japanese hollies brainwashed all the garden designers of the East. They are, at best, a poor substitute for boxwood.
But no need to dwell on them. The other hollies are almost all gorgeous, not least the common American holly, Ilex opaca. The English hollies are glossier and more opulent, but not really more beautiful. Fortunately the English holly grows well with us, so there is no need to pass it by, if you happen to prefer highly varnished leaves.
There are many other hollies. Some have evergreen leaves like magnolias, some have spiny leaves the size of a penny, a bit twisted; and there are a number of hybrid hollies as well. The Chinese horned hollies (Ilex cornuta) are as glossy as the English, and if you object to their fierce spines, the smooth-leaf sort called "Burford" is the answer. All these make good hedges.
The common mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) often discolors in the winter, so you should stop thinking in those terms. Think of it as turning smoky or bronze. It has the tremendous advantage of flowering in pink bomblets it June. Furthermore it abides full sun and flowers most freely when it gets plenty of light. It is not an easy plant to establish, and the best results come from young plants in cans, or else carefully balled and burlapped, and several years must be allowed for its development, but then once you have it, it will be a joy far longer than the gardener himself will be.
If there is space (and there never is) the big bull bay, the native magnolia of the South, is impeccably glossy and solid all winter, and of course bears its foot-wide chalices of perfumed white kid in late spring. But I never care for it in small city gardens, since its shade is oppressive. I do not hold it against this magnolia that it is the favorite roosting place for grackles and starlings in winter. They have to sit somewhere, after all. But the magnolia rarely shows its greatest beauty until it is given all the space it wants, and its powerful muscular branches allowed to droop right to the ground, unpruned and unbutchered. It is not the least suitable for an espalier, which is probably why landscape gardeners love to espalier it.
Gardeners thinking of adding a bit more winter green to the garden might also consider the lovely skimmias, the little sarcococcas, the elegant semi-weeping leucothoes, the winter-flowering pieris, the various arbor vitae, the quick-growing Leyland cypresses (the golden Leyland cypress called 'Castlewellan' is especially showy if you can stand it at all), the many kinds of Lawson's cypress, the tightly whorled Hinoki cypresses (so irresistible with early-flowering shrubs and trees like the star magnolia) and, if you have endless space, the true cedars from the Atlas Mountains, from Lebanon and from the Himalayas, all of which flourish here, though all are determined to rival the oak in bulk.
I have concluded, after many years, that it is better to plant too many of these evergreens, and then to saw them out in later years if they get too heavy looking, than not to have enough.
And as for expense, I think you can hardly whine about expense when the common ivy and the common red cedar are there for the asking.