Gibbs Gardens in December

Burning bush and river birch
Burning bush and river birch

Sunday, December 13 is the last day of the 2015 season to visit Gibbs Gardens but winter doesn’t officially arrive until December 22nd.  Early in the month there are unexpected delights like the Chinese Fringe tree, Chionanthus retusus, pictured here in the Japanese Garden. Every year it is one of the last trees to show off its golden fall finery. Another performer to arrive late on the scene is burning bush, Euonymus alatus. Its fiery red leaves shine throughout the Gardens (there are 100s) at a time when colorful autumn foliage is mostly carpeting the ground. This tough shrub promises to please in many different garden settings.

Chinese Fringe Tree--Dec 2015
Chinese Fringe tree in early December

Unexpected sources of colorful foliage include oakleaf hydrangeas. In December their leaves turn shades of burgundy, red and orange and although they are not evergreen, their foliage persists, often through the winter. Oakleaf hydrangeas also make great companions for the colorful blooms of Camellia sasanqua .

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Oakleaf hydrangea foliage in December

Yellowroot, is a deciduous native that provides an effective groundcover in a shady situation during spring and summer. In late fall its delicate looking leaves turn shades of yellow, orange and peach, creating a golden carpet of color. By under-planting it with an evergreen groundcover like Vinca minor, you will get four seasons of interest.

Yellowroot in early December -001
Yellowroot foliage in early December

On sunny blue sky days, I especially appreciate the overall structure and framework of the Gardens provided by the paths, lawns and water features. Vertical elements, including both deciduous and evergreen trees, as well as garden structures, complete the picture.

December is a good month to evaluate where you may need to add evergreens to your garden. Whether you use them as specimens, for screening or as a backdrop for deciduous shrubs and trees, they can play an important role in the landscape. Favorites at Gibbs include hollies, tea olive, Magnolia grandiflora, hemlocks and cryptomeria.

Among the deciduous trees that stand out in winter are the ‘Natchez’ crapemyrtles.This four-season tree offers white flowers in summer and colorful fall foliage, but winter is when I appreciate it most for its cinnamon-brown bark and striking silhouette; a perfect choice for an allée like the one at Gibbs or a specimen.

'Natchez' crapemyrtle in December
‘Natchez’ crape myrtle bark in winter

River birch, Betula nigra ‘Heritage,’ is another beauty with ornamental bark , peeling off to reveal colors ranging from salmon to white to cinnamon, depending on the age of the tree. A vigorous grower, especially when it is planted in moist soils, this native quickly attains heights of 40 to 70’ and is nearly as wide.   Worth a mention here, don’t plant this tree up next to your house, give it plenty of room to grow. If you have space restrictions but want the same effect in winter, consider the selection Fox Valley (‘Little King’). It has a compact habit, more like a shrub, and grows 10’ high and 12’ wide after 15 to 20 years.

While Harry Lauder’s walking stick, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ is content to play a minor role during the growing season, in winter this shrub takes center stage. A living sculpture with contorted and twisted branches and stems, it demands to be noticed.   Additional interest is provided by the curious yellow-brown male flowers( 2-3” long) which hang down in clusters.

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'
Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’

While it’s true that winter offers a time to reflect on the past growing season, including our successes and failures, it’s also a time for looking forward to blooms in the New Year. One shrub, with fragrant flowers, that I look forward to experiencing in late winter or early spring, is the paperbush, Edgeworthia chrysantha.   Edgeworthia is native to China where it is used to manufacture a high quality paper.   At Gibbs, beginning in December, this architectural plant shows off handsome buds full of promise. Once clusters of buds begin to open on naked stems, the unique yellow and white flowers last for four to six weeks. Handsome blue-green leaves, 6 to 10” long, appear in spring and make a great foil for other shrubs like Virginia sweetspire and and hydrangeas. In my own garden, Edgeworthia foliage wilts if it drys out, but also recovers quickly when watered.

Edgeworthia chrysantha in February
Edgeworthia chrysantha buds in winter

Best wishes to all for the grandest of holidays from your friends at Gibbs Gardens.