In honor of today being St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d celebrate “green” in the garden. No, I don’t mean about being environmentally friendly, although that’s certainly important. I’m talking about just plain green… as in chlorophyll-laden leaves.
This time of year, I’m pretty frantic for anything green. There aren’t many broad-leaved evergreens that tolerate Colorado’s winters. Even the conifers are more a blackish-olive drab—not nearly as nice as the “pine” of the decorating industry. Cold weather does that to leaves: many junipers turn plum-purple in winter. Leaves should not be that color. (Mahonia wears the same hue, but manages to look more attractive in it.) Hardy ice plant glows red, and ornamental grasses shimmer in copper and gold. Mostly, however, things look dull grayish brown, or just plain dead.
Short of hopping a plane for the tropics, what’s a desperate gardener to do?
The most common solution is to grow houseplants. I have enough to overwhelm most house-sitters. We are blessed with a house that’s mostly windows on one side. Not one drop of sunshine goes wasted. Spider plants, dracaenas, philodendrons, peperomias and begonias mingle with succulents, Moth (Phalaenopsis) orchids and the tender flowers I brought inside last fall. Our house is cool and very dry, and I’m not too good at remembering to water, so I opt for hardy over exotic. My cactus all love it here.
Outside is a different story, but there are a couple of broad-leafed evergreens that actually stay bright green all year, even here. Firethorn (Pyracantha sp.) is the first that comes to mind. It’s hardy to zone 5, so my yard (at 7,000 ft. elevation) is borderline, but it thrives downtown at 6,300 ft. Not only do you get small, round bright green leaves, but the orangey-red “berries” (technically pomes) are abundant and long lasting. Pyracantha can be used under windows where its wicked thorns will act as a deterrent to intruders.
If those thorns are a problem, consider substituting a thornless relative, Cotoneaster. (See my article on Cotoneaster.) Cotoneaster has similar fruit and foliage although, compared to Pyracantha, fewer leaves hang on throughout the winter. It’s a native that comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, from large shrubs to woody groundcovers. Not all varieties are hardy, so make sure you buy plants that will survive in your climate.
There are also a few groundcovers that keep green leaves. Perhaps sticking close to the soil offers a bit more protection from drying winds.
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a native prostrate shrub that grows three to six inches high and two to three feet in diameter. It too has small ground green leaves and red berries. Tolerating a wide range of conditions, Kinnikinnick needs some shade and good drainage.
Finally, there is the ubiquitous Periwinkle, aka Vinca minor. This vining groundcover is spangled with violet-blue flowers in spring, but it’s the mid-winter presence of its emerald-green oval leaves that make me appreciate this plant. Vinca isn’t overly fussy about where it grows, but it will look much happier given some shade. You can learn more about Periwinkle in my post from May, 2009.
Soon spring will be arriving with its lush new growth. Already, my Pineleaf Penstemons are suddenly sporting soft, ferny leaves. A faint tinge of green shows deep in the straw-colored grass. Of course, weeds are the first to arrive—they’re popping up all over!
Meanwhile, I’m glad St. Patrick’s Day is at the end of winter. I need a good dose of green.