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Winter gardens can add lots of life

| Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, 8:53 p.m.
Ajuga 'Bronze Beauty' in the winter.
Jessica Walliser
Ajuga 'Bronze Beauty' in the winter. Jessica Walliser

It doesn't seem like right now would be a good time to enjoy the beauty of a garden, but, thanks to a few stalwart plants and a good hardscape, early winter is one of my favorite times in the garden.

My love of winter gardens started a few years ago, when I visited the Royal Botanic Garden — often called Kew Gardens — in London. I didn't expect anything spectacular. It was mid-winter when I visited and what could be happening in a garden in winter? Needless to say, I was blown away by the beauty of the winter landscape they had created there (not to mention the conservatory's tropical flair and all the holiday decor they still had up). From that point on, I promised to begin to incorporate plants into my own garden that boasted not only lovely flowers in season, but also added interest to the garden in the off-season.

Garden designers praise evergreens and trees with textured bark and unusual forms for their winter interest. Rock walls, brick paths, pergolas, trellises, fire pits and other hardscape elements add yet another dimension to the winter landscape. And perennials with unique seed pods, ornamental grasses and broad-leaved evergreen shrubs not only provide food and shelter to numerous birds and beneficial insects, they create a visual feast for winter-weary eyes.

However, at Kew I discovered that, for me, a winter garden is incomplete without a quilt-like swathe of evergreen groundcovers. I'm not talking about pachysandra and myrtle (although these two common groundcovers do stay green throughout the winter). I'm talking about a group of less-common, low-growing groundcovers that have since made a home in my garden, smothering it with blooms in the summer and color and texture in the winter. Without them, my garden would be a far less interesting place during winter's rule.

Over the coming weeks, head out to the garden with a camera in hand. Take pictures of highly visible areas that would benefit from the addition of some winter bling. It could be along a front walkway, outside the kitchen window, next to the back door, or in a shrub island. Make notes about which of these groundcovers would best suit each area. Then, when spring rolls around, head to your local garden center to purchase them and get planting.

Ajuga reptans — This fully evergreen groundcover is hardy and comes in a broad range of foliage colors and textures. It hugs the ground at a mere half-inch in height and is covered with spires of purplish-blue flowers in spring. Ajuga, commonly called bugleweed, is a fast, yet controlled, spreader that prefers full to partial shade. I grow a tri-colored variety called “Burgundy Glow” that is a lovely blend of pink, green and white foliage. “Metallica Crispa” is another favorite, with crinkled, dark-green/burgundy foliage.

Asarum europaeum — European ginger may not be the fastest-growing evergreen groundcover, but it is surely one of the most attractive. Bearing shiny, heart-shaped, 3-inch-wide leaves that stand a mere 3 to 5 inches tall, European ginger is hardy. It prefers full to partial shade and is deer-resistant.

Iberis sempervirens — Evergreen candytuft has been around for a long time. My mom grew it when I was a kid, and I have loved it ever since. Smothered in pure white flowers in spring, this plant remains a rich, deep-green all winter long. It does not spread via underground roots like some other groundcovers, but rather it makes a large, billowing clump and develops roots along the stem as it grows. It is very easy to start from stem cuttings and thrives in full sun.

Thymus species — Turns out that thyme isn't just useful in the kitchen. It's also a great winter-friendly groundcover. With dozens of species and hundreds of cultivars, you can't go wrong with this lovely little plant. Variegated, wooly, creeping, wild, lemon-scented and English thyme varieties all thrive in hot, sunny areas with well-drained soil. Thyme does best when given a regular haircut, so harvest as much as you want for the kitchen early in the season and then let the plant develop lots of new growth before winter sets in.

Liriope spicata — The dark green, strap-like leaves of lilyturf remain evergreen through most of the winter, although sometimes, mine turn brown around the leaf margins just before spring arrives. Variegated forms also are quite interesting. In spring, spikes of purple-blue flowers poke out of the center. Lilyturf spreads at a moderate rate and is suitable for full sun and partial shade. If you'd like, you can mow the plants down each spring to encourage new, deep, green growth.

Sedum rupestre “Angelina” — OK, so this isn't actually evergreen — it's ever-yellow. “Angelina” is a new acquisition for my garden and, so far, I am loving it. The succulent golden yellow foliage hugs the ground at a mere 4 inches in height. In spring, it bears yellow star-shaped flowers and, in the cooler temperatures of fall and winter, the foliage turns a beautiful reddish-amber color. “Angelina” is drought-resistant and tolerant of hot, sunny areas. It is a vigorous grower than can be trimmed back at any time. This plant looks great tumbling over rocks or retaining walls.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her books are available at her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., Thirrd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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