The last leaves of the season dangle on a few trees at the Gardens at Heather Farm, while others now expose their bark, an ornamental attribute that is often overlooked in our gardens. These are the bones of the winter garden, which offers opportunities to appreciate the subtleties and silhouettes in the landscape. If shrubs and trees are pruned properly, this gift from nature is enhanced.
Some of my favorite branch structures include Cercis canadensis ‘Forest pansy’ and Cercis occidentalis (Western Redbud). The structure of these members of the Fabaceae family share similar characteristics. Growing in a crooked manner, the branches flow in a zig-zag pattern in and out from the trunk.
Another characteristic to consider when planning a garden that will offer visual interest in winter is branch color. Cornus sericea ‘Bailey,’ with its wine-colored stems, and Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal,’ whose apricot-pink stems match the color of a winter sunset, are upright, multi-stemmed deciduous shrubs whose branch color deepens as the weather cools.Cornus sericea (also known as red-twigged, or creek, dogwood) is a member of Cornacea family. It grows throughout most of North America in moist areas such as stream banks; in California it is found alongside other native plants such as big-leaf maple, Fremont cottonwood and Vitus californica (California wild grape). At the Gardens at Heather Farm, the cultivars Cornus sericea ‘Bailey’ and Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’ are planted in the Shade Garden under an arbor that receives afternoon shade and is irrigated with a moderate amount of water via an in-line drip system.
Dogwoods are appreciated in the spring for their white flowers — actually “bracts,” or colored leaves, that surround a cluster of tiny yellow flowers, similar to the poinsettia’s. Many species of birds enjoy this plant for its flowers, fruit and structure; the hedge-like growth provides cover and nesting places. Western tanagers and warblers like to eat the flowers. During the summer months, the white fruit is sought out by a wide variety of birds including black-headed grosbeak, titmouse, finch, robin, thrasher, vireo and woodpecker.
Dogwoods are easy to maintain, with few pests or disease. They spread by underground stolens (runners), which can produce a thicket or hedge. While dogwoods can grow to 15 feet in height, pruning in late winter helps control size and encourages new growth.
Pruning to accentuate a tree’s attributes is a lost art in many gardens. The trend is to shape all specimens to look like balls or some other unnatural shape, even though each species has a distinct character, which can be enhanced if properly pruned.
Winter is a time when gardeners rekindle their desire to be among their plants. It also is a peaceful time when new life slowly begins to unfold.
This winter the Gardens at Heather Farm will offer a series of guided walks. Visit www.gardenshf.org and look under “adult education” for more details.
— Patrice Hanlon