A garden for all seasons

What home gardener doesn’t dream of a garden that is always full of color and looks good throughout the year?

The problem is that so many of our ornamental garden plants are one-season wonders: We love them during the short time that they’re in bloom but then rush to hide them with other plants when they stop blooming. And this is not always easy to accomplish.

The secret to a garden that is always attractive is to think beyond flowers. Attractive foliage especially leaves that are evergreen and therefore present all year ensures an effect that will carry the garden through the entire year. Any flowers that appear, however fleeting they may be (no flower lasts forever!), are simply welcome additions.

Here’s a simple combination of plants for an all-seasons garden. It includes plants for sunny to partially shady conditions; that are adaptable to any rich, well-drained garden soil; and that are able to grow in Zones 2 to 9. The plants are all reasonably drought-resistant once established, but adding a soaker hose to the display so that you can water them during periods of prolonged drought is always wise.

A Garden for Early Spring

Here’s a 10x10x12-foot corner garden that easily can be adapted to any size, depending on the space available and the number of plants used. (This can also be a centerpiece garden within a shrub border or in a front yard.)

The Plant List

A Yellow Ribbon’ American arborvitae (7 plants)

B Japanese silver grass (3 plants)

C Hellebore, or Lenten rose (1 plant), underplanted with yellow daffodil (10 to 12 bulbs)

D ‘Citronelle’ coral bells (6plants)

E Hollywood’ coral bells (5 plants)

F Carpet bugleweed (12 plants), underplanted with grape hyacinth (about 20 bulbs)

The Evergreen Backdrop

Always start any garden by planning the background. Consider conifers. Although they’re attractive year-round, they’ll be especially noticed in winter when snow covers the evergreen perennials, leaving the conifers to star. There is a huge array of conifers to try, with various foliage colors ranging from blue-green to golden. One particularly solid choice, adaptable to most conditions and not too big for a flower border, is the American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), hardy in Zones 2 to 7. There are various cultivare of arborvitae in all sizes, from rounded dwarfs such as ‘Hetz Midget’ (height: 3 to 4 feet; spread: 4 to 5 feet) to narrow towers like ‘Smaragd’ (height: 12 to 14 feet; spread: 3 to 4 feet). ‘Yellow Ribbon‘ has a striking golden color (height: 5 to 10 feet; spread: 2 to 3 feet). Once an arborvitae reaches the size you desire, you can prune it to maintain its shape, essentially forever.

The Ground Covers

For the foreground, carpet bugleweed is a good choice, hardy in Zones 3 to 9 (Ajuga reptans; height: 6 to 8 inches; spread: 2 to 3 feet). Although a rampant spreader, it is short enough that it doesn’t choke out other plants. You can allow it to create a low carpet throughout the bed: Just make sure that it doesn’t escape into the lawn! The evergreen, spoon-shape leaves can be deep purple, green, or variously variegated and form multiple tiny rosettes, spreading by stolons. Flowers bloom in late spring on upright but short stalks; they are usually violet-blue, but can also be white or pink.

Other low-growing ground covers to consider for the foreground are Japanese spurge and periwinkle.

The Heart of the Garden

Plant medium-size perennials with evergreen leaves. To attract constant interest, these should cover at least 60 per cent of the garden’s surface.

Hellebores, also called Lenten roses, are hardy in Zones 5 to 9. These slow-growing but tough plants are often thought of as spring bloomers, but because of their evergreen leaves, dark green, deeply cut, and sometimes mottled, they’re always attractive (Helleborus X hybridus; height: 16 to 24 inches; spread: 12 to 24 inches). The blooms start in earliest spring–nodding to partially upright bell-shape blooms in white, purple, deep red, and various shades of pink and pale yellow, often with spotting–and can be single or double. No spring-flowering plants have blooms that last longer: up to 3 months! They tend to fade to green as spring melds into summer.

Among the rosette-forming evergreen perennials are coral bells, hardy in Zones 3 to 9 (Heuchera spp.; height: 18 to 30 inches; spread: 12 to 24 inches). These now have dozens of cultivars, with leaves in a wide range of colors from golden yellow (‘Citronelle’, ‘Dolce Key Lime Pie’) to shades of orange (‘Caramel’, ‘Amber Waves’) to purple (‘Mocha’, ‘Purple Palace’) and purple overlaid with silver (‘Cinnabar Silver’, ‘Silver Scrolls’). Most have fairly insignificant flowers, but a few bear narrow stalks of pink to red to white blooms. ‘Hollywood’, with double pinkish-red flowers, belongs to this latter group and blooms throughout the summer.

Another perennial to consider is barrenwort, which is hardy in Zones 4 to 9 (Epimedium spp.; height: 6 to 16 inches; spread: 8 to 18 inches). Its leaves change color through the season, from mottled yellow-green and red in the spring to deep shiny green in summer and purple in fall and winter. The dangling spring flowers, like tiny columbine blooms, come in pink, red, white, or yellow.

Seasonal Highlights and Color

If you use enough evergreen color to carry the garden through all four seasons, there is no reason that you can’t add some less durable but spectacular temporary effects. Here are some suggestions:

For spring color, insert abundant clumps of spring bulbs among the perennials. Small bulbs, such as crocus, Siberian squill, and grape hyacinth, grow no more than 4 to 8 inches tall and will bloom right through the bugleweed. Taller daffodils will do the same among the hellebores, coral bells, and barrenworts. These plants yellow and disappear among the surrounding green foliage after bloom, requiring no maintenance.
Intense summer color can be ensured by incorporating popular, long-blooming perennials, such as daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Stella de Oro’), Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’), and blanketflower (Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Burgundy’), all hardy in Zones 3 to 9 (height: 12 to 48 inches; spread: 12 to 60 inches). When fall comes and bloom slacks, simply cut them back and the evergreen perennials will dominate again.

Tall, fountainlike, Japanese silver grass is slow to start in spring but produces its dense clump of narrow, arching leaves by midsummer and is coiffed by silvery plumes in the fall; it is hardy in Zones 4 to 9 (Miscanthus sinensis; height: 2 to 12 feet; spread: 3 to 4 feet). The leaves and stems turn tan or beige in the fall and last through winter, as do the silver flowers. Cut the plants back to the ground in spring.