Perk up winter gardens with colorful fruits and foliage

It was back to school for me when Tim Drake of Valley Crest Landscape Maintenance visited recently with The Hilton Head Island Garden Club.

The program Drake presented covered winterizing your garden, plants to grow for year-round interest -- even winter -- and plants to grow for all-season garden color.

With a bow to the tough environment we live in, Drake presented tips to meet the challenges: plant spring-flowering bulbs in January and they won't bloom too early; continue watering gardens as it can be dry in winter; forget about planting fall annuals, their color presentation is too short a window; now is the time to plant for spring.

What you can put in your garden for winter interest are shrubs with colorful foliage, flowers and fruits. First on Drake's list are the camellias both Japonica and Sasanqua. He remembers the first time he saw a camellia shrub in full flower, "Who thought this up?" went through his head.

For colorful foliage, there's variegated ginger, ligustrum and ivy. Colorful crimson standouts are "Firepower" nandina, "Red Star" cordyline and "Rubrum" loropetalum. Drake calls nandina one of his favorite plants, saying it "kinda" has three-season color: a first growth of lime green, followed by dark green and winter's blazing red foliage and berries.

A word or more about ivy, variegated or not. Ivy has a bad rep; it is invasive to the extreme, and deer like to eat it. But if you are not into a grass lawn or a yard full of pine straw, ivy fits a real need.

I've a bed of large-leaved ivy interplanted with bromeliads and spider plants. Other ivy beds grow and spread under shrubs and trees. Variegated ivy is high on my desirable plant list of groundcover plants for its rapid growth and spreading habit. Deer do not eat it, and it requires little water. English ivy is treated regularly with a deer deterrent.

In a recent phone conversation with Polly King who grows beds of sweet potato vine in her yard at The Cypress in Hilton Head Plantation, I was reminded of a deer deterrent I'd forgotten.

King keeps deer out of her yard with the assistance of husband John who provided the urine that she sprinkles along their property line.

Drake's list of shrubs with colorful flowers and fruits includes the dwarf pomegranate, cassia, American beautyberry and coral berry.

For winter texture and drama the many cactus varieties are standouts. A saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) in Drake's yard is 15 feet tall and full of flowers.

Other attention-getters on a cold winter's day are foxtail fern (a Drake favorite for its Medusa effect), bird's nest fern, ponytail palm and "Sky Pencil" holly that will grow to the shape and size of an Italian cypress and is very shade-tolerant.

The old axiom that flowering plants will be chosen first when displayed among those not flowering, proved true when garden club members picked by lottery a plant from Drake's selection to take home.

The first to go was the golden flowering cassia that has been blooming and slowing traffic in the Lowcountry this fall. Next was the beautyberry with its branches heavy with plum-colored berries. Planted now, the berries will disappear fast. This beautiful native is a favorite of birds.

I got lucky, my name was drawn early, and I chose the "Sky Pencil" holly. Another holly in the yard? But unlike the yaupons that pop up in spring and summer, this is an Ilex crenata. It's unusual form makes it a perfect specimen for a container. Best of all, it prefers deep shade and I sure can provide that. Thanks, Tim.