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.


Picking for Vases

This is a hard time for those of us who love to go to the garden to pick flowers to grace the table. We’ve had a few weeks of cold weather, and even the hardiest of flowers seem to have faded away. So what can a gardener do?


Think outside the box. We can pick stems of shrubs with colorful or interesting bark. We can snip off branches of evergreen trees. And there are decorative grasses and even some dry weeds that have interesting form.


Witchhazel blossoms

Witchhazel blossoms

Actually, I do have one thing still blooming: my witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) shrubs are in their glory now that their leaves have dropped. They are remarkable yellow blossoms that consist of curly yellow straps. Their fall foliage is yellow and the blossoms appear while the leaves are still on the branches – and are easily missed. Now the leaves are gone and the blossoms are prominent.


Witchhazel comes in several species. There is a spring blooming variety, H. vernalis, that blooms as early as March. Some varieties of this species also have spectacular fall leaf color. The variety ‘Autumn Embers’, a spring bloomer, has great fall color. I have yet to try this species, but it’s on my wish list.


Miscanthus sinensis

Miscanthus sinensis

Most grasses and branches lend themselves to making big arrangements. I decided to try working with some to make something shorter as tall arrangements on the dining room table block my vision of a diner across from me. I cut stems of fountain grass (Miscanthus sinensis) which is well over 6 feet tall in my garden, but I just used the top 18 to 24 inches of each stem. They are in blossom right now, meaning that they display fluffy plumes above the foliage.


I also cut the bare red stems of red-twigged dogwood, which is also known as red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). This is a plant that I cut to the ground each spring. New growth has bright red bark that seems to get brighter in the winter. In the wild it lives in wet places, and I grow it in moist soils, but it will grow in ordinary garden soil. I cut it back to keep the size in check, but mostly to get bright red color. Other varieties of the species produce yellow stems.


So I had bright red in the vase, and tawny beige grasses. I needed some greenery. I have lots of Canadian hemlock, but have found that the needles do not hold on well. White pine would work, but I wanted a different look. I cut a few stems of a hellebore, a perennial flower with evergreen leaves. The stems rise up a foot or so, then send out horizontal clusters of shiny green leaves, which seemed perfect. The leaves did well for a couple of days, then got droopy.


Other plants that often have good looking leaves at this time of year include European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), dead nettle (Lamium spp.), myrtle or periwinkle (Vinca minor) and pachysandra (Pachysandra spp.). And although a vase full of just leaves may not be interesting in summer, a little greenery in a low bowl with a few stones is not bad now.


Of the leaves mentioned above, pachysandra is the best: it will last all winter in a vase, rooting and looking perky. Pick some now for use all winter.


In my vegetable garden I still have a number of plants that might also look good in a vase. Kale comes in a variety of colors and leaf types. All do well in a vase, and purple kale can be very striking. Mint also holds up for several days in a vase – and you can nibble on the leaves.


If you grew last winter’s amaryllis outdoors in a pot all summer, (hoping it might re-bloom for you this year), now is the time to give some tough love. You need to stop watering it, and let the leaves yellow and die. Cut off the leaves and keep it in a cool dark place for six weeks. It needs that dormant time if it is to re-bloom.


I usually take my amaryllis out of its pot, shake off any soil, and put it in a brown paper bag. Then I store it in my basement, which is between 45 and 55 degrees at this time of year, which is perfect. After 6 weeks I re-pot it and bring it up into the warmth of the house, but keep it out of direct sunshine for a while. Date the bag so you will know when to bring it into the light.


If you want to be sure of having a blooming amaryllis for the holiday season, go buy one now. They generally come with all you need: pot, potting soil, instructions. Don’t overwater it as the bulbs can rot. And this advice: bigger, more expensive bulbs are worth the money. The cheap ones you can get in a Big Box store will bloom, but you will probably just get one bloom stem, not two, and the blossoms will generally not be nearly as dramatic, nor be as numerous. I’ve learned the hard way.


Winter is breathing down our necks. I’m using the woodstove almost every day. And although I get a few things from my garden to put in a vase, I like to visit my local florist and buy some real flowers, too. If you’re on a limited budget, ask your florist for flowers that will last well in a vase. We gardeners all need flowers- even winter!


Henry is a garden consultant, coach, and a UNH Master Gardener. His web site is


What’s Blooming Now in the Garden


By mid to late October, many gardens are looking quite drab. That need not be the case, and this week I’d like to mention a few of the flowering plants that are cheering up my gardens now.


Witch Hazel blossoms

Witch Hazel blossoms

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a native shrub that grows in the understory and blooms now (or in the early spring, for Hamamelis x intermedia). The flowers are not dramatic on most varieties– they are less than in inch in diameter, and are arranged close to the stem. Although I’ve seen witch hazel in a public garden that had red blossoms, the native species that I grow is a pure yellow and the petals are very frilly – you could say “spider-like”. The look best after leaf drop.


            As a kid I went to a barber who used a witch hazel tonic as an astringent after shaving men. To make us kids feel more grown up, perhaps, he applied some on the back of our necks when he was done with us. It is a very fresh scent that is made from the bark of young stems and roots of the shrub. The leaves, when crushed, also have a nice smell.


 My Seven-Sons Flower Tree (Heptacodium miconioides) is still blooming now. This is a smallish tree (under 30 feet tall), but one that grows extraordinarily fast. It is not unusual for new stems to grow 3 to 5 feet in a season. I love the bark, which is exfoliating (shaggy). Its flowers are small and white, and appear in panicles (clustsers).


I am experimenting with mine to see how it does as a pollarded tree. Pollarding is a process of cutting off most new branches back to major branches every few years, keeping the size in check and crating large knobs where new growth originates. It’s a very popular pruning technique in Europe. Last year I cut off all the smaller branches, leaving a trunk and three major branches. This year I got dense clusters of branches growing from the ends of those major branches. Interestingly enough, many of the new stems are growing out and down, almost like a weeping tree.


Chrysanthemums great fall flowers that I buy in pots each year around Labor Day. I treat mums as annuals, even though some varieties will overwinter. Why? Because to get a dense, compact plant, one must pinch back the growing stems two or more times during the summer, and I have too much going on to remember to do so most years. There are people who do this for a living, and I am happy to let them do it. I like mums in window boxes (the smaller ones) and the big, dramatic ones in pots on my front steps. When they come in peat or cardboard pots I transplant them into plastic pots as the former dry out too quickly. 


Aster 'Alma Plotschke'

Aster ‘Alma Plotschke’

Fall asters have been splendid this year, both those that I planted and those growing along the roadside or edges of fields. The wild ones are mostly blues and purples. I purchased a pink aster that is in bloom right now, a variety called ‘Alma Plotschke’. She is an intense, deep rose pink and not nearly as tall as the wild ones.


Some smaller wild asters(12 to 24 inches tall are blooming at the edge of my lawn. My reference text on native flowers (The Illustrated Book of Wildflowers and Shrubs by William Carey Grimm) lists 29 species of wild asters. These short ones have bluish-white blossoms. I believe mine are the common blue wood aster (Aster cordifolius), which is usually a light blue or lavender. The differences between wild asters can be minute and there is much variety within a species, so they could be the white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), which is also common in New England. It doesn’t matter, they’re all lovely.


Fall crocus are wonderful! True fall crocus (Crocus sativus) are not fully hardy in my cold Zone 4 garden. Various vendors list them as hardy to Zone 4 or 5 or 6. I have had them winter over, and have a client nearby who has had them blooming each fall for years – in a Zone 4 garden. These crocus are the source of saffron, but I’ve read that it takes 10,000 flowers to make an ounce of saffron!


Colchicum in a small vase

Colchicum in a small vase

Colchicums are also called fall crocus, but are not true crocus. They look like crocus on steroids – they are commonly 6 inches tall! I planted a lot 10 years ago, but each year I have a few less. Unfortunately their stems do not usually support the flowers, so they flop. To avoid this I have planted them in amongst a ground cover like myrtle (Vinca minor) that helps to hold them up. Mine are mainly pink, but also have a few white, both as singles and doubles. 


Some annual flowers hold up against frost for awhile, too. My favorite right now is Brazilian verbena (Verbena bonariensis), which is hardy down into the 20’. It grows three feet tall on thin, stiff stems with little clusters of purple-blue flowers. The flowers seem to float above shorter things. Look for it next summer.


Fall flowers are a gift. Even when I’m thinking about woodpiles and snow shovels, a few hardy plants keep on bringing me joy.  


Henry is the author of 4 gardening books and a children’s book about a boy and a cougar. His Web sites are and