Another stalwart in my garden is a ‘Vanderwolf's Pyramid' limber pine; its strong branches have long, blue-green needle clusters so widely spaced that the climbing hydrangea on the brick wall behind is clearly visible. Together, they are a charismatic, stylish pair, with the exfoliating, cinnamon bark and flower heads of the hydrangea acting as a delicate, feminine-looking foil to the more masculine pine.
It's always good to strive for brightness in winter plant associations, and nothing beats the crystalline red fruits of my dwarf American cranberry. The generous berry clusters last deep into the season and are often topped with a cloak of snow. If viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni) is a problem in your neighbourhood, ‘Afterglow' and ‘Jim Dandy' winterberry shrubs, both dwarf forms of native holly, are excellent substitutes. (‘Afterglow' is the female berry producer—you'll want several of her, with just one shrub of the male ‘Jim Dandy' to pollinate the group.) All of which leads to the pairing of these red-fruiting plants with a lovely river birch that has exfoliating tan to salmon pink bark. Although white birch is traditional in Canadian gardens, the subtle tan-pink coloration and heavily peeling bark of river birch is a welcome innovation. A good melding plant in this group is PeeGee hydrangea, whose dried, bronze-coloured flower heads weave between the birch and red berries.
Of course, I save the best for last. It's worth carrying a breakfast bowl of cereal to the window in winter, just to start the day with the vision of ‘Blue Heaven' juniper and ‘P.J. Mezitt' rhododendron in an irrepressible embrace. (I consider this my “Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara” plant combination.) ‘Blue Heaven' is a neat and formal conical shape with intense sky-blue foliage that turns to silver in cold temperatures. The branches of rich mahogany foliage of ‘P.J. Mezitt' in winter, meanwhile, will brazenly weave around and through any available partner.
Ornamental Grasses: Tower of Strength
Many ornamental grasses go through autumn in splendid colour and form, only to topple over from winter wind and snow. But grasses producing flowering stems with tall, rigid stalks will continue to stand above the snow line and contribute their dried ornamental flowers and seed heads to winter plant combinations. If you'd like to soften the appearance of woody shrubs and needle evergreens, try these grasses:
- ‘Karl Foerster' feather reed grass. Tall, vertical flower stalks that last through winter; height - 21.5 m, width - 145 cm; s; Zone 4.
- Giant Silvergrass (Miscanthus ‘Giganteus') Corn-like stalks in winter; height - 22.5 m, width - 11 m; s f; Zone 4.
- Flame Grass (M. ‘Purpurascens') autumn orange-red colour turns straw-hued in winter; height - 21.2 m, width - 175 cm; s f; Zone 4.
- Silver Feather Maiden Grass (M. sinensis ‘Silberfeder') Silver-white plumes in winter; height - 22.5 m, width - 180 cm; s f; Zone 5.
- ‘Strictus' Porcupine Grass (M. s. ‘Strictus') Green with yellow blotches, fluffy plumes in winter; height - 21.8 m, width - 180 cm; s f; Zone 6.
- ‘Heavy Metal' Blue Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal') Metallic mauve-blue foliage; narrow, upright form and seed heads; height - 21.2 m, width - 175 cm; s f; Zone 4.
Photo: Autumn Joy stonecrop