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Every morning while waiting for my coffee to brew, I spend a few minutes looking out a kitchen window.

No matter what the weather, my eye wanders across the garden and never fails to rest on the pale outlines of one or another variegated plant.

In any season, white, cream, and yellow highlights on trees, shrubs, or perennials create an impressive contrast against deep greens, burgundy, or bluish tones.

This interplay of hues stands out strongest on the north side of buildings, under broad tree canopies, or wherever shaded spots call for a brighter touch.

But in winter's low light, the contrast becomes one of any garden's best assets.

Inevitably, I wonder why there isn't more variegated foliage in my garden to contrast with the preponderance of green. It's a gardener's conundrum.

Most of us purchase plants in fair weather, adding what seems a good idea at the time, forgetting about bleak, long-past winter scenes and what could enhance them months in the future.

We could fix that now, with spring just around the corner. It will take determination — or at least notes in a garden journal — to remind us about near empty gardens November throughFebruary. It will take resolve not to let a spurt of warm sunny weather and a riot of blooms in the neighborhood nursery deter us from a memory of dimmer days.

There are still several weeks in front of us before our last-frost date in April, time to survey barren gardens and jot down where a variegated plant could light up a winter scene.

When plant shopping, go armed with a list and ask for a special order if you can't find what you want. It's crucial to check labels when purchasing accent plants during the warm season so that you take home an evergreen species.

For example, a wonderful variegated grass small enough for most gardens, Miscanthus sinensis Morning Light, shows its white margins only during the warm season, then turns tan and goes dormant during winter.

The same is true for the beautiful but lower-growing Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa).

Fill in bare spots

Low-growing species make good edging plants, but by placing a few variegated ones inside garden beds, their evergreen leaves fill open spaces after perennials and deciduous grasses die to the ground and are cut back.

To add a low profile, consider planting several grasslike tufts of Carex comans Frosty Curls or Carex Evergold, which is sometimes simply labeled as Variegata.

Both of these sedges thrive in shade but also do well in a sunny position with ample moisture.

Variegated lily turf (Liriope) is another grasslike clumper that also prefers some shade in the heat of summer.

Tight clusters of lilac or white blooms rise on short spikes most of the year.

Several pale-foliaged Euphorbia cultivars such as Tasmanian Tiger form rounded clumps.

Long, thin stems of Euonymus Emerald Gaiety, in contrast, weave their way along the ground.

Mid-size shrubs

In microclimates that rarely drop below freezing and escape high heat in summer, shrubby Hebe hybrids with pale, variegated foliage brighten gardens in every season with tight pairs of small leaves along straight stems. Most have short sprays of pale lilac-blue blooms.

More creamy white than green, flowering maple (Abutilon Savitzii) is a valued addition in shade. It reaches about 3 feet in height.

For a denser shrub, choose Abelia 'Kaleidoscope,' named for golden yellow bands surrounding green centers on small leaves held tightly on reddish stems. White, star-shaped blossoms appear summer through fall.

Keep an eye on all variegated plants and remove stems bearing only solid green foliage, particularly on variegated autumn sage (Salvia greggii or S. microphylla and hybrids).

This drought-tolerant shrub needs regular hard pruning but only after May 1.

Large shrubs

Where large shrubs are welcomed, variegated myrtle (Myrtus communis), mock orange pittosporum (P. tobira), or even larger Italian buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus) all create striking scenes.

For nearly year-round bloom as well as pale foliage that stands out in dim light, plant bush germander (Teucrium fruiticans) that bears myriad very small, grayish-green leaves and small but dense clusters of purplish blue flowers.

A compact cultivar is only 3 feet high and wide.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.

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