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Gardening for Winter Interest

Hosta Book Review


Gardening for Winter Interest

by Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, Vice President MGANM

Winter is a very good time to view a perennial garden for structure.  There are many flower gardens which lose all interest after the fall and display a flat barren plain until awakening in late spring.  Plan ahead now to add winter interest to a flower garden.

Landscape design uses plant layers that include canopy, understory, shrub, perennials, grasses, and ground covers.  However when flower gardening, a canopy layer reduces the sunlight available which alters the perennial choices.  Small trees and shrubs are available and recommended to help add a design element and interest to a perennial garden.  In winter, early spring and late fall the garden will have something to see when the garden is asleep.

Small trees suitable for inclusion in a flower garden include Allegheny Serviceberry, Speckled Alder, and Redbud.  These can be categorized as small trees or large shrubs depending upon pruning.   

-A Serviceberry, Amelanchier laevis, is a high-value small tree.  It can be single or multiple stemmed.  It blooms early in the spring with an abundance of white flowers, which ripen into berries in early summer and are a favorite food of birds.  Stems are slightly arched and can be pruned.  It tolerates sun to partial shade in dry to semi-moist conditions. 

-Speckled Alder, Alnus rugosa, a fast-growing small tree with multiple thin trunks.  Leaves turn yellow in the fall.  Tiny cone-like seeds develop on mature trees.

-Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis, is a small tree that can be covered with small deep pink flowers in early spring.  The blooms last for two to three weeks and are followed by large, heart shaped leaves.  It has arching branches and a rounded crown.

These trees provide an important vertical structure in a perennial garden.  They can be used as a single specimen, or used as multiples to create a flow.  Both the Serviceberry and Redbud bloom quite early, giving the garden a needed splash of color, while some perennials are just beginning to sprout.

Shrubs play an important role in perennial flower gardening.  Their shapes, whether arched or rounded, stay upright through the year providing shape in the garden under the snow.  In fall and early spring their structure provides assurance that there really is a garden!

There are many shrubs from which to choose depending upon the gardener’s tolerance for suckering.  All can be pruned to maintain the shape and scale desired.  Consider Winterberry, Spicebush, Shrubby St. John’s Wort, Shrubby Cinquefoil, or Highbush Cranberry.

-Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is a deciduous holly.  It blooms all along the stems in small, white flowers in summer and sets bright red berries.  It is a stunning plant in the snow. Note:  plants are sexed.  Only females produce berries and a male must be present.  These are well-behaved plants.

-Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, produces color and interest throughout the season.  In spring, yellow flowers grace the stems before the leaves appear and the leaves are golden in fall.  Female plants will produce red berries.

-Shrubby St. John’s Wort, Hypericum prolificum, Kalm’s, is a fabulous shrub for pollinators.  Its mid-to-late summer bloom lasts for weeks and attracts bees of all sizes and types.  The bluish-green leaves add summer interest and a natural globe shape.  The blossoms leave a multitude of seed heads which create interest.  Should the plant need taming, cutting the seed heads can keep a compact size.

-Shrubby Cinquefoil, Potentilla fouticosa, is a tough, hardy plant that has a long golden yellow flower bloom time.  It’s branches arch and can be pruned in spring to keep it looking good. 

-Highbush Cranberry, Viburnum trilobum, is a larger shrub that has clusters of white flowers in May and June.  Red fruits follow.  The berries are edible to wildlife after freezing and thawing which provides important early nutrition to migrating birds.  It can be pruned after flowering to maintain size and shape.  Or, give it space and use as a specimen in the garden.

Adding shrubs to a perennial garden creates structure and adds habitat and food for birds and wildlife.  Sitting inside enjoying the warmth and rest from the busy growing season, evaluate the winter interest in the perennial garden.  Adding small trees and shrubs for vertical interest and dynamic design can keep a flower garden interesting all year long.


Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan, Lynn M. Steiner

Photo by jks Lola,

Photo by jks Lola,

Hosta Book Review

by Nancy Denison, Advanced Master Gardener

The Color Encyclopedia of Hostas by Diana Grenfell and Michael Shadrack, Timber Press, 2004

The encyclopedia is a four hundred page compilation of hosta history, photos and classification has been residing in my bookcase for many years. I have referred to it a few times and always promised myself I would spend a little more time with it, so if you enjoy the diversity and beauty of the simple hosta, read on!

I knew little of the background of the wild and cultivated hosta family, so reading the first two chapters was enlightening.  Hostas are native of the far east and are thought to have evolved from lily-like ancestors who drifted from east central China by two different routes, meeting later to produce the hostas known today.

Most wild hostas had been interbred for centuries although those more geographically isolated have now been brought together by human interaction.  Wild hosta species, those clump forming perennials grown in clearings and woodlands, have given us most of our garden varieties.

The first known Westerner to see, draw and describe a hosta was Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1751), a medical doctor with The Dutch East India Company stationed on an artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor. Between 1784 and 1789 the first hosta (H. Plantaginea) was planted, from which grew others in France and then spread through Europe. Forty years later, hostas from Japan began reaching the west. The first major shipment came to America directly from Japan by the son of London nurseryman, Thomas Hogg.

Hostas begin growing as spring warms the ground and end their seasonal growth to wither away as fall and then winter arrive.  The shape of hosta is mostly determined by the root type; compact roots produce mounded foliage and running rootstock produce spreading groups of foliage.  The frost hardy leaves are stalked, vary in size and rise directly from the roots.  The flowers are tubular, spider, flared or funnel shaped and vary in color from white to deep purple.  The leaves are classified by size, shape, leaf blade, venation, substance, finish and color. Amazingly, leaves are categorized from #1 Giant (144sq in) to #6 Dwarf (2sq in). Leaf shape, blade veins and color are also exacting methods of identifying species.

Hostas need fertile, moist, well-drained soil with protection from heat of the sun and strong winds. However, individual hosta needs can vary greatly.  Most are frost tolerant to 28oF and require winter chilling of at least 40oF for several weeks. Hostas are drought tolerant but can need additional moisture in the growing season. They are able to grow in a wide range of soil conditions but grow best in rich loam. Prep soil, if necessary, with organic materials and continue to mulch in future years. Hostas are shade tolerant but more sun than expected is needed to produce quality flowers. Light dappled shade from a tall tree canopy is ideal.

Chapter 4 discusses gardening with hostas, contrasting colors, size, texture and leaf shape. If you have hostas, you already know snails, slugs and deer are damaging pests, attracted often by fragrant flowers.

The remaining chapters concentrate on describing hostas by leaf color, margin or medial variegation with information on origin, clump size, description, special comments, or distinguishing features. A clear photo accompanies each description.

This spring when my hostas begin popping up, I will attempt to label them again while I enjoy the show of leaves and flowers.  They add depth and dimension to my shade gardens, are easy to split and share… and hopefully won’t be consumed by visiting deer.