Winter Color on the Table

I garden for many reasons. I want to grow my own chemical-free food, to have an excuse to be outside a few hours every day, and to have flowers on my table most of the year. Right now I have just 2 out of 3. A good batting average for a ball player – better than David Ortiz, for example – but not good enough for me. I want to hit one thousand. I need color and beauty in my house all year.




I almost always have a pair of pruners in my car, so when driving past an uninhabited swampy area recently I stopped to pick some winterberries. These red berries are the fruits of our native holly, Ilex verticillata. Unlike the evergreen varieties with shiny green leaves, winterberry drops its leaves in the fall, but clings to the red berries displayed on the female bushes.


Winterberry is dioecious, meaning that there are male and female bushes, and (remember that lecture you got ever so long ago about the birds and bees?) only the females produce fruit. And only if there are males present. If you buy winterberry plants, a good nursery will be sure to sell you a male to go along with your females. One male for 5 females is adequate.


Winterberry is a very satisfactory garden plant. It prefers moist soil and will grow in standing water – though I have seen it succeed in ordinary garden locations, though not in dry, sandy places. It does best in acidic soil, with a pH of 4.5 to 6.5, so add some sulfur to the planting hole. It produces the most berries in full sun. Soil rich in organic matter is a plus.


It is very cold hardy, surviving temperatures to minus 40 degrees (Zone 3). It is a moderate-sized shrub, rarely getting much more than 6 to 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. I’m not sure why I haven’t planted much of it, as it brightens the winter landscape with its bright berries standing in contrast to the snow. Next year I will plant some more. Remind me!




Of my outdoor flowering plants, only witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is still in bloom. Its yellow flowers have strap-like curly petals that remind me ever so slightly of yellow spiders dancing on the branches. The flowers are, theoretically, fragrant, but I have never noticed such.


Witchhazel will bloom in sun or shade and prefers moist soil. It has an open, branching habit. It is native to our area, and I first met it in the fall, hiking through a woods; I was intrigued to find something blooming after leaf drop, and looked it up. I have two that I planted, and after 10 years they are about 10 feet tall – but somewhat wispy. They are considered small trees or large shrubs and will grow up to 20 feet tall, but can be kept smaller with pruning.


My fallback position for color on the table is to visit my local florist on a regular basis for cut flowers. For 10 to 15 dollars I can get a nice arrangement of flowers that will last up to two weeks. Ask for flowers that will last a long time in an arrangement. Chrysanthemums are great, as are alstroemeria and carnations; lisianthus, spray roses, statice and monkey paws last well, too.


Each fall I also purchase an orchid. Orchids are thought by some as fussy or temperamental, but if you treat them right, they will bloom for months – and even come back and bloom the following year (though that is tougher). The most common orchids sold are Phalaenopsis orchids. Twenty years ago they were dreadfully expensive, but growers in Holland and Taiwan now produce them by cloning – producing hundreds of thousands of them for sale in big box stores.




Phalaenopsis orchids like bright light, but no direct sunshine. They do not do well with cold temperatures, but home temperatures are generally fine – even though they come from greenhouses with temperatures in the 80’s. Don’t place them near radiators, woodstoves or doors to the outside. And never let the roots sit in water!


When buying an orchid try to find one that not only has pleasing colors, but also has plenty of buds. The stems will blossom from bottom to top, but usually you will only get blossoms from existing buds. I have cut back flower stems part way to the base after blooming, and gotten side shoots that blossomed, but that is rare.


Because you can buy a Phalaenopsis orchid for $10 to $15, some people just toss them out after blooming. Not me. I keep them, watering once a week until summer, when I bring them outdoors onto my shady deck. They come in pots with no drainage holes and would drown and die if I left them in those pots, but I lift out the inner pot which is just a stiff plastic mesh, which allows rain to moisten the roots but not rot them.


This year I have 2 Phalaenopsis orchids that I bought last year, and one has started a flower stem. It hasn’t yet started forming buds and I know I will never get it to bloom as magnificently as it did when I bought it. Still, it will add some color in a couple of months – and it cost me nothing this year.


Most Americans waste money on unnecessary items from time to time. Me? I’d rather waste a little money on house plants and cut flowers than most other things.


Read Henry’s blog at He is the author of 4 gardening books.


Exploring New Trees and Shrubs


            Snow has come. The leaves are raked. The garden is as put to bed as it’s going to get. It’s a good time to think about what worked this year and what didn’t. I was pleased with a number of new shrubs that I planted in the last two years and think you might like to keep them in mind next spring when the ground thaws.


            The very last shrub that I planted this year was – I have to admit- an impulse buy: scarlet beauty sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Morton’). I was at E.C. Brown’s Nursery in Thetford, VT ( in mid-November to get a small tree for a special project. And there by the driveway was a shrub that still had its leaves, and they were bright red! I mean as red as burning bush (Euonymus elata) that shrub, loved by many but now banned in most states, that turns a brilliant red in fall. It called to me a soft voice,”I could be yours. I need a home before winter …” So it came home.


            According to the tag, it is a medium growing spreading deciduous broadleaf shrub with a height of 3 to 4 feet that spreads 2 to 4 feet. Before I decided on it, I checked my favorite plant reference text, Michael Dirr’s Guide to Woody Landscape Plants. It told me that it is hardy to Zone 5 –safely surviving winters of minus 20 degrees. The plant tag said it was hardy to Zone 4, which means it will survive 30 below zero. I decided to get one, even though we do see temperatures colder than 20 below, on occasion.


            Dirr’s book also described the flowers as white, lightly fragrant and about half an inch in diameter, blooming in early summer. He noted that given full sun and plenty of moisture the flowering can be “staggeringly beautiful”. That sounded good to me. Especially since the leaves were dramatic in their fall colors – and I have a nice wet spot near my stream. I am always leery of plants that spread by root, so I ‘ll keep an eye on this one to be sure it doesn’t take over.


Disanthus cercidifolius

Disanthus cercidifolius

Another nice shrub that I got in 2012 that had great fall foliage is the “redbud hazel” (Disanthus cercidifolius). Not a redbud or a hazel, this shrub has leaves that look like redbud leaves. The leaves turn a brilliant red early in the fall, with hints of orange and purple. I planted mine in 2012 and it overwintered nicely, but did not bloom this year. Though as I read Dirr’s book, I now notice that the flowers are “non-showy” half-inch diameter dark purple flowers that appear in October. So maybe there were a few, and I missed them in among the red foliage.


            Redbud hazel plants need light to moderate shade, along with deep moist soil that is rich in organic matter and protection from the wind. Mine is suitably planted, and has survived minus 20 degrees.  They can grow 6 to 10 feet tall, though mine did not show rapid growth in its first year.


            Another nice shrub that I planted in 2012 has many names: Carolina allspice, common sweetbush, sweet Bettie, spicebush and my favorite, sweet bubby. Which is. of course, why plant geeks like me prefer the Latin name: Calycanthys floridus. Don’t be intimidated by Latin nomenclature, just pronounce every letter – and say it with gusto and everyone will be sure you know what you are talking about (that works for me, anyway).


            Sweet bubby is, according to the literature, very adaptable: it will grow in sun or shade, acid or alkaline soil. But it does like rich, moist soil and I have plenty of that. I originally planted it in full sun, but the leaves scorched a little that first summer. I assumed that since I had kept it in the pot in a shady spot for a month or more, the scorching was just a reaction to the sudden shift to full sun. But it scorched again this year. So this fall I moved it to light shade near a big old wild apple tree.


            The flowers of Calycanthus are striking: deep maroon up to 2-inches across and they can be deliciously fragrant. But not all varieties are fragrant, so if the scent is important to you, buy in early summer when the blossoms are on the plants at the nursery. Some, I have read, may even smell like vinegar. Mine do not have a noticeable fragrance.




I have seen a Calycanthus that was 8 feet tall I in Woodstock, VT, but it was clearly a plant that had been around a long time. Mine has not grown much in the two years I have had it. It can spread 6 to 12 feet, and the two specimens I see regularly seem to be more interested in growing sideways than getting tall.


            The only other woody plants I installed this year were a couple of striped or moose maples (Acer pennsylvanicum). This is a small understory tree that I notice in the woods in winter – the bark turns a bright, light green with dark stripes. It is rarely sold in plant nurseries, so grab one if you see it for sale. It is said to grow even in terrible soil conditions, but likes moisture and acidic soil.


            We can’t plant anything now, but we can plan and dream.


Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s fantasy-adventure about a boy and a cougar. His web sites are and He can be reached at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or