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Zonal Denial Revisited – Winter Performers in the Garden

Winter Performers in the Garden
ARTICLE BY: SEAN HOGAN, Originally Published in the HPSO Quarterly in Winter 2016
Sean Hogan is a HPSO member who most recently presented the lecture at Plantfest 2017 & owns Cistus Nursery


Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a small article for a very good newsletter published by the late plantswoman Stephanie Feeney. Jeez, TWENTY years ago! Anyway, I had just come back to Portland and was frustrated by the overwhelming commercial availability of so many plants grown en masse here for export to points east like New Jersey, Denver, and Bend—you know, the whole east coast! Little in the way of Western Oregon lowland natives or broadleaf evergreens save for rhodies (the pink one) and a few others were to be had. I knew many keen gardeners here and was familiar with older gardens such as Bishop’s Close where year-round performance, even a concentration on winter effect, was the norm, so I knew more was possible. Well, that was back in the day, as they say, and I wanted plants now. I guess we had to start a nursery, but that’s another story.

Osmanthus fragransFirst thing: observe and obtain as many “old Portland” plants as possible from great gardeners like Jane Platt and Margret Mason, to whom I was lucky enough to spend my childhood adjacent. Second thing: begin planting from acquisitions from around the world that should like it here just fine.

About that time, a Northwest nurseryman wrote a little spoof about a couple of California transplants planting all their houseplants outside and being oh-so-disappointed in the results. Something had to be done! Knowing humor and horticulture don’t always mix, Stephanie’s publication was the perfect answer, as she never winced at a little poke at convention. When she asked for a story, the concept of “Zonal Denial” was born. The concept: not planting indoor plants and hoping for the best, but using plants for any ambience in the garden with plants that really like it here!

Deny or embrace—when we need it the most. In the horticultural roaring ‘90s that meant planting hardy bananas (Musa basjoo) among others, Hedychium, palms and any bold texture possible. We have evolved nicely since then I think, with gregarious plants tucked in more comfortably to add excitement and scale, not necessarily a Tiki-lounge vibe. Here in the Willamette Valley, early winter and late summer seem to be the dullest times. The fried look of August might be why so many gardeners of yore split town or just sat on the veranda with a Mint Julep. If a young city like Portland were to have a style other than the one all those New Englanders brought with them 150 years ago (speaking of the first zonal denial), it would be five generations of one-of-each purchases at Fred Meyer and a climate where things might suffer but never really die. You know, the red camellia that wants to be 20 feet tall under the living room window, with the forsythia, and the pink rose, and the bluebells…. All that encourages me to leave town in late winter and spring until it’s over. Indeed, sometimes it is all about editing—maybe with a chainsaw—and looking at plants brought to us by the season. As if brevity were possible, I’ll concentrate on winter here and plants in full denial.

Daphne x transatlanticaIn mid-autumn after the first rain and cool, the Polypodium glycyrrhiza unfurls from long-dormant succulent innards and so many bulbs peek their heads above the soil with what might be seen as spring from a native plant’s point of view. Beginning in mid-autumn when the Zauschneria (Epilobium canum, etc.) are at peak, combine these with autumn crocus, colchicums and nerines. I’m not a pink person (really) but the combo of burnt orange, violets and pinks works wonders as skies become increasingly overcast. Together with cyclamen—first C. hederifolum then C. coum and others take color through late winter where they work well with white Hellebores, for example. These work well as massing when, toward the holidays, they’re more likely to be seen from 68° comfort.

“Out every window, a portrait”—a mantra repeated often while planting years ago at Portland’s Chinese Garden. Here, of course, it might be your neighbor’s boat adorned with a blue tarp. For me, or an unassuming client, it is having a view from not only the picture window, but the kitchen sink or wherever we’re likely to spend time. I had, for years, a pair of Adirondack chairs in the garden visible while traveling from kitchen to dining room.

Only after some time did I realize both how few times I had placed my butt in them and how often the pleasing thought of being outside came with just a glimpse. I translate that into performers entertaining even when it is chilly, such as the larger Asian Mahonias with rosettes of foliage centered by gold candelabras from November through February, depending on type. Other focal plants such as members of the Aralia family add bold-osity right through. Fatsia japonica might be old hat, But F. j. ‘Spider’s Web’ with emergent speckled white newer leaves, and F. j. ‘Spilt Milk’ margined and splashed cream and white, add brightness in the gloomiest light. Several garden-worthy Schleffera species are destined to become standard furniture as well. S. delaveyi, to an eventual 15 feet or more, sports large white panicles of flowers in mid- to late fall, with leaves in excess of three feet undercoated with buff wool. Metapanax delavayi creates a translucent curtain of bamboo-like foliage and might make the neighbors think you are growing a now-legal agricultural crop.

Zonal Denial Plants

For shade, so many new Aucuba (gold dust plants) are on the scene and more than useful. One we named a couple of years ago is A. japonica ‘Overlook’ with narrow dark green leaves edged in cream and yellow. Another, A. ‘Gold Mound’, though not the sexiest name, is a favorite to only a couple of feet ‘round. The foliage is often more light gold than green, and the fruit on this female plant is a tangerine tone.

Cast-iron plants (Aspidistra spp.) are also making a comeback. Once relegated to dark Victorian parlors in this country, dozens are now around. Two of my favorites are ‘Spektacular’ to about three feet and adorned with large nearly white polka-dots and A. tonkinensis in forms spotted and not. These can be over four feet tall and are fast-growing for a genus usually slow motion. Water deeply in Summer when it’s hot to hasten growth and remember to keep the snails and slugs at bay. Also preferring shade is the genus Rohdea, another evergreen perennial in the lily family and with a cult-like following in Japan. Some are so slow they’re destined for pot culture only, but R. japonica ‘Mure Suzume Improved,’ imitating an evergreen white variegated hosta (or maybe the cream variegated one), grows to a spreading 18 inches. R. japonica [upright variegated] given us by Nevin Smith, looks for all the world like a sanseveria with two-foot upheld dark green leaves edged white. Keep the root weevils away!

Mahonia lomariifoliaI have made a goal of having fragrance in the garden every day of the year; and no, that doesn’t include plants like Eurya or anything with a species of foetidus. That’s an odor, not a fragrance. In our garden the season starts while the evenings are still warm with Osmanthus fragrans selections that fill the air with the aroma of warm apricots. These are followed by O. heterophyllus ‘Purpureus’ then ‘Rotundifolius’ with sweeter scent into November. At that time, and it was early this year, the loquats (Eriobotrya japonica) waft for a great distance—and at least last year through January. With this, you get large leaves, sweet fruit and fragrance on a small tree to 25 feet or so.

There is a sarcococca for every winter month. S. saligna (salicifolia) is usually earliest, beginning in November in our garden with chartreuse flowers on willow-like leaves on plants as large as four feet. Next is S. orientalis with large white sprays on slightly smaller plants, S. confusa with typically red stems—handy for winter arrangements and S. ruscifolia. The plant S. r. ‘Dragon’s Gate,’ named and given us by Roy Lancaster, reaches three or four feet but with dense foliage and a long flowering season with way many flowers. Even camellias shouldn’t be forgotten—maybe except the pink ones. C. sasanqua ‘Narumigata’ is one of my tops for not doing without. Supposedly its long history in Portland began as a formal gift from a Japanese diplomat. The four-inch single flowers begin as rose (not pink) buds, then open as white to pearl (again not pink) with darker edges. The fragrance is earthy and sweet; the flowering lasts from October through the new year. Ours is trained to a small street tree at about 14 feet.

For the most in-your-face palmy look, well how about a palm? About a dozen have performed as needed in our garden over the years, but Trachycarpus wagnerianus stands out and up. First grown and selected at a temple in Japan, the leaves look as if they have been cut with pinking shears, threaded with white in the margins and powder-coated bluish on the undersides. The fronds don’t tatter in high wind and the whole plant has a more architectural look than tropical. Cultural hint: with regular summer water, 25-30 feet can be expected, and don’t plant in red cinder. That’s tacky. Yucca rostrata is another top 10, eventually forming a trunk to 10 or more feet. The large blue rosettes move gracefully in any breeze and stand out as foliar fire works in winter light.

For the dry garden, a long-term obsession are the manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.). With evergreen foliage from deep green to glaucus blue, orange to mahogany bark, and winter flowers of white to blush or pink, why not practice winter denial with one of our own natives? Want one? But wait, there’s more! The flowers are scented of honey and draw hummers and pollinating insects. I have been accused of being a little obsessed with the genus, having selected several hundred over the last few years for garden trial. Any of the Arctostaphylos manzanita selections are good for small tree form with the main caveat in the smaller ground-covery types is to avoid the eastern selections of A. uva ursi or kinnikinnick such as ‘Massachusetts’ which is apparently Latin for “fries in the summer” here.

All the above are evergreen unless the meteor hits your garden. Most importantly, if you’re throwing a dinner party for a few dozen close friends on the coldest night of the decade, the view out the window doesn’t have to be of you covering your garden with tarps while your friends eat!

Zonal Denial Plants

All Photos by Sean Hogan


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