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McCREARY: Color, texture enliven winter gardens


]Late autumn prompts some gardeners to put away their tools and stow any leftover, warm-weather enthusiasm for gardening until the first signs of spring appear, months from now, all because their home landscapes look somewhat sparse this time of year.

There's really nothing we can do to stop the fall of leaves that opens up voids in our gardens, but there are many things we can do to maintain eye appeal in the midst of barren beds and borders after we've cleared away messy debris.

First of all, we should do what we can to salvage stemmed seed heads favored by birds that visit our neighborhoods. Permanent residents and migrating species look for food on a daily basis and depend on bird-friendly sites.

If you don't like the ragged looks of summer and fall flowering species such as cone flowers (Echinacea), asters, and sunflowers as they fade and dry, then pull off their leaves and gather stems into an outdoor decorative pot or other container. Just be sure to place it close enough to a tree or shrub so birds can find cover easily.

For long-lasting winter interest, add a few eye-catching plants with high-profile branching patterns, beautiful bark or evergreen foliage.

If you think there's no available space in your landscape, the solution may be to replace a ho-hum plant that fails to appeal throughout the year.

Harry Lauder's walking stick (Corylus avellana Contorta) is a longtime favorite for attractive twisted branches exposed after leaves turn yellow and drop. Over time, it reaches 8 feet tall and about half as wide. Use it as an anchor at the end of a bed or in another prominent spot.

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and trident maple (A. buergeranum) are small trees with mahogany or tan peeling bark most easily appreciated in winter. Trident maple has the further advantage of being one of the least water-demanding among the species.

And crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia), always a West Coast favorite bloomer in summer and autumn, enchants in winter with showy, peeling bark and winsome tan-to-gray blotching on bare branches. Multi-stemmed selections provide the most interesting shapes.

Colorful conifers

<MC>If you'd rather have color light up your landscape during the rainy months, consider the many hues of evergreen conifers.

Dwarf firs (Picea), false cypress and cedars (Chamaecyparis and Cedrus), cypress (Cupressus), spruces (Picea), junipers and pines all come in beautiful colors ranging from yellow and gold, blues and grays to bronzy red and many shades of green.

Cultivars may have weeping branches or twisted stems, form broad hummocks or rigid spires, or feature unusual cones.

Few dwarf forms, of which there are many selections, are routinely stocked locally and must be special ordered, though Pond and Garden Nursery on Stony Point Road in Cotati is always a good source.

[SUBHEAD_RAG_]<IP0>Tempting perennials

<MC>Phormiums, sometimes called New Zealand flax, are among the showiest evergreen perennials. Numerous cultivars have beautiful yellow, orange, red, and bronze variegations on swordlike leaves that grow stiffly upright or arch gracefully.

Gardeners should always be wary of these plants before purchasing them, however. It's always prudent to note the mature size. Phormium tenax can reach 10 feet tall and as wide. Once mature, it takes a herculean effort to remove.

Even named cultivars carrying tags that predict a 3-foot height have been known to reach 6 feet. But many do maintain a manageable size and contribute good form and riveting color to the garden every season of the year.

Shear pleasure

<MC>Adding evergreen plants that respond to clipping and shaping is another way to introduce continuous greenery that also adds structure to the garden.

Hedges of any size or shape are dependable features, but to make sheared shrubs truly eye-catching, introduce a geometric shape that draws attention away from unadorned, dormant areas of the garden.

Pre-trained spirals are readily available at most nurseries as are naturally formed globes and cones, but if you want to wield pruning shears yourself, these and other shapes are not difficult to create from many evergreen species.

Small leaves on boxwood (Buxus), grayish green santolina and bush germander (Teucrium fruiticans) or smaller dark green T. x lucidrys, and green or variegated myrtle (Myrtus) are excellent subjects that thrive in all of our microclimates.

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.