Miss Floribunda: Don’t be snowbound, if you get my drift
Dear Miss Floribunda,
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, but am pretty sure I’d have to go back to New Hampshire to have a real one. People assume I miss the New England autumns and summers and am glad to get away from the winters. As a matter of fact, I like the autumns here because they last longer, and I prefer a more muted blend of color. Although your summers are hot, and I don’t like mosquitoes, I am glad to be away from the vicious black flies of a New Hampshire summer. I don’t miss the mud season of spring either. What I do so miss are the winter wonderlands of my childhood. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a white birch rising from glittering snow into a bright blue sky, or the lacey shadows cast by leafless maples on a white sheet of snow. As for conifers, they look completely out of place to me in winter if they aren’t surrounded by lots of snow.
Frankly, Hyattsville winters are depressingly drab. Could you recommend some white ground covers that might give me at least the appearance of snow?
Impossible Dream on Decatur Street
Dear Impossible Dream,
You certainly have an artist’s eye, and I hope you’ll use it to see the possibilities in your present surroundings, rather than try to create an illusion of the impossible.
What could be more appropriate for Christmas than the holly and the ivy that grow so well in Hyattsville? There are even white-edged ivies that could also give you a look of the frostiness you miss.
Our broad-leaved magnolias are anything but drab in December, and in this climate, you can actually find lovely glossy-leaved camellias that will bloom in December. I would recommend the red Korean Fire among the Camellia japonicas, and the white Snow Flurry among the Ackerman hybrids.
Among the lightly fragrant Sasanqua camellias, the white Polar Ice, the red Yuletide and the pink Winter’s Rose are especially enchanting. You can view these in bloom if you make a trip to the impressive camellia garden at the National Arboretum nearby in northeast D.C.
Also at the Arboretum, you might be inspired by the beautiful lace-bark pine (Pinus bungeana), with its near-white trunk and the striking dark silhouettes of local native river birches that are not prey to the borers that make it impossible to grow northern white birches without resorting to poison. These trees can be seen in a number of gardens in Hyattsville, including that of my neighbor Wendy Wildflower.
Wendy has a four-season garden that is always beautiful. Defying Emily Dickinson’s dictum, nature is never “caught without her diadem” in Wendy’s domain. I’ve always admired Wendy’s winterberry bushes and hellebores, but I suspected that the charm of her winter garden went beyond a few specimens. Her secret? “Clean, sharp edges around well-defined spaces,” she advised. You don’t have to hack back your whole garden. Along with berry-yielding shrubs and vines, dried stalks and seed heads give visual interest and attract the birds that make the winter garden lively and happy in our area. Who knows? A number of these pretty flutterers may be some of the very ones that have deserted New Hampshire during the winter.
Bird feeders could make focal points in the pattern you want to create. Boxwood and santalina make attractive edgings for the beds you want to delineate. You could even make an ingenious knot garden, something that in New Hampshire would be invisible when buried under many inches of snow. Here our occasional light snow falls would enhance the beauty of the patterns.
Wendy adds that skillful use of the color red is another way of providing focal points in the winter garden, and certainly, the gem-like berries glowing in her garden accomplish just that. She also advises grouping similar plants together, rather than haphazardly dotting beds with disparate ones. For example, artfully arranged in her garden are masses of hellebores — both the snow-white Christmas rose (Helleborus nigra) and the later-blooming and multi-colored Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis). These are placed beneath trees, but in the sunny south-facing area is a flotilla of snowdrops — some of which will bloom even in December.
In the meantime, I have tried to find out what ground covers might to some extent simulate snow. If you don’t find it too tiring and expensive, you could plant veritable flurries of fluffy white pansies. They would look charming through Christmas, but the harder frosts of January will nip them in the bud quite literally. Although they’d bloom again in spring, it is unlikely the plants would survive the heat of summer, so you’d have to treat them as annuals.
If you prefer low-care perennials, you might consider some of the silvery ivy varieties like Adam and Glacier that have white edges. While, of course, the white flowers of Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum) do not bloom in winter, the foliage of Cerastium tomentosum columna is a frosty celadon in winter. There are a number of euphorbias that are quite silvery, if not true white. Snow-on-the-Mountain (Aegopodium podagraria) has white-patterned leaves in winter, but can be quite invasive. Be sure you like it very much.
Please check the Hyattsville Horticulture website (hyattsvillehorticulture.org) for information about our next meeting.