Conifers bring color and form to the winter landscape: Forever Goldie golden arborvitae (foreground) with Wissel’s Saguaro Port Orford cedar (background) are two favorites. Both began life as 1g container plants.
Here in the Seattle area we have transitioned from endless rain to frosty mornings followed by chilly but sunny afternoons – perfect for gardening!
I’m still cleaning up the last of the leaves which managed to weld themselves into the twiggy structures of deciduous shrubs and trees, and stomping down endless mole hills (a bizarre dance which our new 14 week old puppy finds very entertaining!)
Being outside yesterday also gave me the opportunity to appreciate anew those shrubs that offer so much value in late winter with their colorful foliage, unique textures, and varying form yet require minimal maintenance.
Here are my personal favorites:
Best Low Maintenance Conifers
Frosted, silvery-blue dwarf Arizona corkbark fir plays against golden foliage.
The more conifers I grow the more I love them. Smaller specimens make ideal centerpieces in year round containers; a great way to save money when you eventually transplant them into the garden. That’s exactly how I came to have a mature Forever Goldie golden arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Forever Goldie’) in my garden. It started as a one gallon container plant in 2010 and is now approximately 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide – a stunning, glowing focal point. Likewise Mr. Wissel as he is affectionately known, or more correctly Wissel’s Saguaro Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsonianna ‘Wissel’s Saguaro’) began as a skinny blue-green conifer in a pot but now is also 8 feet tall or so, although the deer have spoiled the cactus like appearance somewhat after rubbing against him. Regardless, he still adds a statuesque presence to the winter garden – you can see them both in winter designs in our latest book Gardening with Foliage First.
Quart sized conifers start off in a container garden: Blue Star juniper and Rheingold arborvitae
Other favorites for their easy care attitude are steel-blue Blue Star juniper, Rheingold arborvitae that transitions from chartreuse to mid-green to deep orange, dwarf Arizona corkbark fir (Abies lasiocarpa ‘Glauca Compacta’) – a gorgeous silvery blue with a dense, compact shape, and Sungold thread-branch cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera ‘Sungold’) which creates a mop-like mound of golden yellow foliage that looks fabulous next to broadleaf, dark green evergreens such as camellias.
All these conifers are low maintenance as they require no pruning for shape, size or color and do not shed needles (the way pines do for example). In my garden they are all deer resistant although I suspect the Rheingold arborvitae has just been lucky so far and Mr. Wissel was pressed into service as a rubbing post as I mentioned earlier.
Best Easy-Care Evergreen Shrubs
Tucking a small Rainbow drooping fetterbush (at 9 o’clock) into a container design is a fun and inexpensive way to grow your shrub collection. Photographed in fall
For me to consider an evergreen shrub worth growing, pruning should not be a necessary part of its management either for shape, size control or best color, and I also expect it to be disease resistant. Since foliage interest is key to all my designs it should also have great leaf color with bonus points for seasonal color variation and double points if it also blooms.
As if those criteria weren’t tough enough, I also have to ensure deer resistance and drought tolerance once they are established.
Winter color on Rainbow drooping fetterbush
A top winner for me is Rainbow drooping fetterbush with its chameleon-like color change from summer green/cream to winter deep red. It has a fabulous, arching form and spring flowers too! Start it off small in a container design then transplant it to the garden if you only see small sizes at the nursery. Scarletta is another great variety with deep ruby-red color.
Oregon grape (Mahonia sp.) is a star genus year round in the garden and there are many species and cultivars to choose from including tall, upright growing varieties such as Charity and a low growing, native ground cover. Yellow blooms attract hummingbirds, the blue berries that follow are edible, while the dark green holly-like foliage is welcome for its architectural status in the garden. The foliage of the ground cover form (creeping Oregon grape) even changes to deep purple in winter – wow!
Twiggy box honeysuckle introduces an intriguing texture behind the red barberries. (Combination photographed at Bellevue Botanical Garden)
Box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida cvs.); from the larger Baggesen’s Gold and Red Tips to the shorter and more compact Twiggy I love them all for their finely textured foliage and great color. I personally think the larger forms are best allowed to tumble in an informal mound although they do take well to shearing. For smaller spaces stick to Twiggy and skip the size control issues. In exceptionally cold winters these may lose some leaves but generally come through just fine in my 6b garden.
Hedgehog holly is a sterile option if you cannot grow English holly – and look at that color!
If you like variegated English holly but it is invasive in your area, you might like the Hedgehog holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’ ); same great color but a sterile clone.I think the extra spines on the leaves make it truly fascinating.
Milder gardens may also enjoy distyllium (e.g. Cinnamon Girl) and Goshiki Japanese false holly. I grow both although the tips sometimes suffer frost damage, although the shrubs eventually grow through that.
More resources and ideas
There are so many great plants out there yet I know it can be challenging to select plants that aren’t going to be a maintenance nightmare. Good news – I’ve created a short, inexpensive online course to help you called
Secrets to Selecting Low Maintenance Plants!
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