Add winter interest to your gardens

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As you look out your windows onto a wintery scene are you missing the colors, shapes, and forms of your summer garden? 

No need. If you want to be delighted rather than depressed with your views, plan now to add some winter interest to your garden with color, texture, and form.

Crape myrtle’s exfoliating bark adds textural interest. 

Let’s start with texture. Adding plants with interesting bark textures ratchets up the “wow” factor in a landscape. Personal favorites are the shaggy bark of river birch and the mosaic bark of crape myrtles. Both have striking multiple trunks and crape myrtles range from 3 to 30 feet to fit any landscape. Other trees have smooth bark, furrowed bark or bark like an elephant’s trunk. Mix it up. The excellent book, “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs,” includes bark photos in each plant profile.

With needles short or long, spiky, clustered or drooping, evergreen trees boast appealing texture. Seeing Norway spruce’s kimono sleeves dusted with snow makes you really, really want one. 

But trees aren’t the only plants that tout texture. Think shrubs, ornamental grasses, and perennials. I can’t walk by a leatherleaf viburnum without stroking its coarse, deeply veined leaves. Ditto for holly’s glossy leaves. 

The seed heads of ornamental grasses and perennials also can add striking texture. The snow-capped seed heads of coneflowers and Brazilian verbena look especially fine. 

Now, let’s pop some color into your winter garden. You’ll find it in the crimson branches of red twig dogwood and the berries of hawthorns, hollies, and winterberries. But red isn’t the only color you can cultivate. 

Winterberry adds bright color to the winter landscape

Some junipers tinge purple in the winter or hold onto their summer blues. Tan ornamental grasses contrast well with snow and add movement when stirred by the wind.

Crabapples dangle yellow, orange, and red fruits while viburnums show off berries of red, purple, black, or blue. And most evergreens are, well, green.

Mother Nature stocks her palette with softer colors. Grey rocks sport green lichen. Wood ages from brown to grey. Use natural materials to add color and beauty to walkways, benches, fences, and accents. 

Suffuse your garden with your favorite colors. In the European garden Kiftsgate, the owners carefully placed splashes of bright blue. It adorns a bench, garden gate, and more to perfect effect. So grab your paintbrush. 

Now, let’s talk form. Mixing shapes creates a well-designed landscape, but those shapes are most noticeable in winter when deciduous trees have dropped their leaf dresses. What do the bare bones of your landscape tell you? Look for shapes – round, square, triangle, oval, pillar, vase, and teardrop – and add what’s missing. 

If your landscape is filled with lollipops – round balls on sticks like maples – then add something layered and wider like a dogwood, triangular like a spruce, or columnar like an arborvitae. Weeping forms improve every garden.

When garden designers tell us to plan for the view, they mean the views from both the inside and outside.  So look out your windows and imagine what you want to see. Then make it happen.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.


Save the date! On March 9, join together with fellow University of Maryland alumni, faculty and staff, students, and volunteers for an extraordinary day of giving back. Make a contribution to Home and Garden Information Center Fund for #GivingDayUMD!

Curl up with a good gardening book

stack of garden books
Books for gardeners. Photo: C. Carignan

The holidays are over. The temperatures have plummeted. Now is the perfect time to curl up with a mug of tea and a good gardening book.   

Yes, I have go-to reference books when I have a gardening question. But I treasure a handful of gardening books for sheer reading pleasure. Yes, you will learn. But, oh the beauty of the language.

I just finished reading Diane Ackerman’s Cultivating Delight, a lyrical ode to her garden. You sit beside her in her window seat to watch birds building nests. You hear a garden center’s siren song. You can smell her roses.  

She tells more, more deeply, and with intrigue. She weaves tales of intrepid plant collectors risking life and limb, Greek gods becoming flowers, the glory of a summer storm, and cricket sex.  

Along the way, Ackerman quotes Kipling and Longfellow, Muir, and Blake and gives us lessons on botany, biology, ecology, history, and garden design. You’re not aware you’re being taught, only lulled with lush language. 

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Norfolk pine is a charming Christmas tree

branches of Norfolk Island pine trees
Norfolk Island Pine

Uh oh. You need a last-minute gift or a tiny tree to brighten a corner of your holiday home. Here comes a Norfolk pine to the rescue. Whew. That was close.

Looking like miniature Christmas trees, Norfolk pines pop up at garden centers and other stores over the holidays. Bedecked with bows and balls, they’re festive and cute as can be.

With a graceful, pyramidal shape and tiers of gently arched branches, they are loaded with appeal. They look delicate but are actually tough, long-lasting little trees.  

Technically a Norfolk Island pine, this pint-sized evergreen is native to – you guessed it – a place called Norfolk Island, just east of Australia. Captain James Cook discovered this tree on his second expedition to the South Pacific in 1774.

Norfolk pines are subtropical, hardy in zones 9 to 11. So they can’t handle our winters but are happy to summer outside and hang out with us indoors when the mercury drops. 

They are fairly carefree houseplants. Put them in a bright spot with some direct light. Water them when the top inch of soil feels dry. 

Norfolk pines love humidity, so mist them or group them with other plants. Fertilize them every week to two from spring to fall.

Transition them to outdoor living in the summer by putting them in the shade for a few days, then introducing them to bright light. Just remember to keep them watered and bring them in before the first frost hits.

Norfolk pines’ roots resent disturbance, so repot them only every few years. Once they get three feet tall, replace only the top few inches of soil instead of repotting the whole plant. 

They are slow growers. Norfolk pines generally top out at three to six feet indoors, but they take their sweet time getting there. In their native climes, they can top out at 200 feet.

Oh, and did I mention that a Norfolk pine is not a true pine? Technically Araucaria heterophylla, is part of a genus of 19 species of pine-like conifers. 

But let’s not split botanical hairs. 

The Norfolk pine is an appealing tree. For those with small spaces, it’s an ideal Christmas tree. For the rest of us, it is just a tiny charmer, a sweet little elf of a tree.    

Big or small, I hope your holiday tree is the center of a warm and blessed holiday season spent with family and friends.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Christmas cacti make lovely gifts and décor

Christmas cactus are popping up everywhere. They’re lovely living gifts that enliven holiday décor and add beauty year-round. If you like floral irony, this is your plant. Even though they are fleshy succulents, they originated not in arid regions but in the rainforests of Brazil where they drape themselves over tree branches as epiphytes.  

Arching stems on cactus
Arching stems give Christmas cactus – and this Thanksgiving cactus – handsome structure when not in bloom. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Lauri Ricker

As with many tropical plants, Christmas cactus delivers a double dose of drama. The first is the strong architectural form of arching stems made up of a series of scalloped pads. But it’s their cascading flowers in pink, salmon, red, or white that are the real showstoppers. Stacked layers of swept-back petals with prominent stamens, they are very oh-la-la. They also have a long bloom time, flowering from two weeks to two months.

Heavy blooms are a hallmark of Christmas cactus and its cousin, this Thanksgiving cactus.    
Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Wilma Holdway.

Also long is their lifespan. They can live for decades, often becoming family heirlooms. I once received cuttings from a plant started by a – ahem – mature friends’ grandfather. This caused a commotion at airport security.  What IS that thing on the x-ray? And yes, the kindly man let me keep my cuttings once I showed them to him and shared their story.

Christmas cactus has beautiful cascading blooms. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Leora Smith

Care is fairly basic. They like bright indirect light, not full sun. Keep the soil slightly moist. Mist regularly or put the pot on a dish of moist gravel to boost humidity.

Christmas cacti need cooler temps and less water to nudge them to bloom again. They need a chill to give you a thrill.

Master Gardener friends report that the natural drop in temperature and day length in fall is enough to encourage buds indoors. Others let their cactus summer outside in light shade, keeping them out until fall temperatures drop to 50 to 55 degrees. Regardless of how you stimulate flowering, resume regular care when buds form. After your cactus finishes blooming, give it a cooler rest period and less water for two months.  

And yes, Christmas cactus has many cousins including Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus, all named for the times they bloom. Mine never consulted calendars and bloomed as they liked. 

How can you tell which cactus you have? Easter and Thanksgiving cactus have pointed edges on their leaves while Christmas cactus leaves have more rounded scalloped edges. 

Thankfully, Christmas cacti are a snap to propagate, so they are easy to share.  Just break off a stem at a joint, slip into well-drained soil and keep the soil moist. It will root in a few weeks. 

I love a good story, and these plants have several. My favorite is a Brazilian legend that tells of a poor boy in the jungle who prays repeatedly for a sign of Christmas. One day he awakes surrounded by colorful flowers on the tips of cactus. And so the cactus became a symbol of answered prayers. 

So Christmas cacti are a symbol of hope. With their long lives, colorful blooms, ease of care, and sharing, they make wonderful gifts for friends, family, and your very own green thumb. 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

Frightfully fun jack-o’-lantern lore

Spooky or silly?  How do you carve your jack-o’-lantern?

Whether you go for fun or fright, jack-o’-lantern carving is a family-friendly way to mark the season. Have you ever wondered how the tradition got started?

As with much folklore, it started with the Celts.  Northern Europeans carved frightening faces into beets, potatoes and turnips to fend off restless evil souls.  To illuminate them, they placed a burning ember or candle inside. A glowing cast of an early carved turnip lantern greets visitors to the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life with blazing eyes and a crooked grin.

A more macabre theory is that Jack-o’-lanterns allude to pagan customs of severed heads as war trophies.  That certainly puts the sin in sinister.  

The link between jack-o’-lanterns and Halloween started with – you guessed it – another Celtic tradition.  The Celts believed the worlds of the living and dead blurred on October 31, the night before their new year began and the start of a long, hard cold winter. So they lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts.  Through the years, secular and sacred traditions overlapped and All Hallows Eve became Halloween with its scary connotations including our buddy, Jack.

But who put the Jack in jack-o’-lantern?  In 17th century Britain, it was commonplace to call any man you didn’t know “Jack.”  A night watchman became “Jack of the lantern.” 

The Stingy Jack 18th century Irish folktale also colors the tradition.  Stingy Jack tricked the devil and was fated to spend eternity traveling between heaven and hell with only an ember of coal in a turnip lantern to light his way. 

Irish immigrants brought their traditions to America in the 19th and 20th centuries and discovered that our native pumpkins were much easier to carve than the turnips or taters from the Old Country.

Ever try to carve a turnip? 

Local pumpkin patches and garden centers are loaded with jack-o’-lantern potential.

Thrill-seeking youngsters soon realized that the glowing faces of carved pumpkins had serious scare potential and used them to frighten passerby.  Boys will be boys.

Literary references morphed from benign to sinister.  In his “Twice Told Tales,” Nathaniel Hawthorne offered up the first known literary reference to jack-o’-lanterns.

Discussing where to hide a bright gem, his character says, “Hide it under thy cloak, say’st thou?  Why, it would gleam through the holes and make thee look like a jack-o’-lantern.”   

Washington Irving’s 1820 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” dialed up the fear factor when his headless horseman tossed a glowing jack-o’-lantern at Ichabod Crane who disappeared forever.

Cue the spooky scream. 

jack o lanterns

While jack-o’-lanterns are part of the scene that is Halloween, their meaning has mellowed.  Many consider them a symbol of community, a big orange welcome mat for trick-or-treaters.

Last year, I followed the laughter down my street to find a neighbor and her kids gleefully gutting three huge pumpkins for carving. Tossing a gooey handful of seeds, she grinned and said, “It just isn’t Halloween without jack-o’-lanterns!”  

Whether you find jack-o’-lanterns fun or frightful, I suggest you grab a plump pumpkin by its stem and have your way with it to honor the long-standing tradition.

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

Create a pollinator-friendly garden

What did you have for breakfast? 

If your plate included toast with jam, fresh berries, granola with nuts, coffee and juice, you had a nice balanced breakfast, right? Take away everything that needs a pollinator and your left with only dry toast and plain granola. That’s how dull and diminished our diets would be without pollinators.

Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are responsible for one in three bites we eat.  They are crucial to not only our food supply, but to our ecosystems. Pollinators build healthy habitat. They keep plant communities vigorous and able to reproduce naturally, supporting biodiversity and providing food, cover and nesting sites for wildlife.  

Unfortunately many pollinators are threatened by habitat loss, pesticide use, disease and changes in the way we manage the land.  They need our help.  While bees and butterflies are our pollinator poster children, we should also thank wasps, flies, moths, beetles, hummingbirds and bats for their services. 

How does pollination work?  Buzzing, flying, crawling and humming along, pollinators get dusted with pollen as they sip nectar and gather pollen from a flower.

Bee on bee balm
A bee searches for nectar and pollen in the tubular flowers of hyssop. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Barb Hendershot

When they visit another flower – bam! – pollen gets transferred which triggers the formation of seeds and fruit.  That is how plants grow our food.

Without pollinators, there would be no strawberries, juicy peaches, crunchy nuts or corn on the cob.  I’m not willing to give that up.  Are you?

I didn’t think so.  So join me in helping pollinators by creating a pollinator-friendly garden.

Start with diversity. Plant many different flowering plants that bloom from spring to frost so pollinators have a constant source of pollen and nectar. Mass plants to give them a better chance of being noticed by pollinators.  Plant three coneflowers, not just one, to put out the welcome mat.  

Include native plants.  Since native plants co-evolved with native insects – including Maryland’s 400 species of native bees – they naturally support them best with better nutrition.

A silver spotted skipper butterfly explores a zinnia.
A silver spotted skipper butterfly explores a zinnia. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Barb Hendershot

Think big.  Include not only annuals and perennials, but trees, shrubs and vines. Each plant type provides habitat for different pollinators’ needs from food and shelter to places to raise young.

What are some favorite plants for pollinators?  The list is long but includes columbine, phlox, purple coneflower, bee balm, butterfly weed, goldenrod and asters, redbud, ninebark, oak and birch. Here are some good resources for pollinator plants from the Xerces Society and Pollinator Partnership: and this guide on pollinator.org.

Provide habitat for nesting and egg-laying by pollinators by adding shrubs, grasses, a brush pile and orchard mason bee house.  Add water with a birdbath with a few rocks for pint-sized pollinator access. 

To really boost your yard’s pollinator appeal, limit or eliminate pesticides.  Bees, in particular, are very sensitive to chemicals.   Opt for kinder, gentler organic controls like insecticidal soap and hand-picking.

Learn more about creating a pollinator garden at our University of Maryland fact sheet. You’ll find resources for native and pollinator plants as well as tips for garden design and maintenance. 

I hope you will make your garden a pollinator hot spot, the place to be.  Or is that bee? 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.  

Invite butterflies to your garden

Raise your hand if you love butterflies.  Wow, that’s a lot of hands. 

It’s hard to resist the fluttering appeal of butterflies with their delicate wings, zig-zag flight and graceful presence in our gardens.  So, why resist?  Revel in butterflies’ visits and do more to attract them to your gardens. 

This means having flowers blooming from spring to frost.  Different butterflies emerge at different times and need fuel to fly.  

Lilies and other flowers welcome butterflies such as this great spangled fritillary.
Lilies and other flowers welcome butterflies such as this great spangled fritillary. Photo credit: Barb Hendershot, Washington County Master Gardener

Flat-topped plants with single flowers provide good landing pads for butterflies.  Think zinnias and yarrow or other plants butterflies can easily grasp.   Choose native plants such as purple coneflowers, asters and goldenrods that have evolved with native butterflies to provide maximum nutrition.  

Butterflies undergo what’s called complete metamorphosis.  That means that they are an insect that goes through four distinct life stages:  egg, larva, pupa and adult. Host plants provide both a place for adult butterflies to lay their eggs and food for the caterpillars that emerge. So adding host plants helps not one but two butterfly life stages.  

Different butterflies need different host plants.  For example, dill and parsley are host plants for black swallowtail butterflies while milkweeds host monarch butterflies.  

A black swallowtail butterfly feeds on parsley, one of its host plants.
A black swallowtail butterfly feeds on parsley, one of its host plants. Photo credit: Martha MacNeil, Washington County Master Gardener
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Master Gardener Martha McNeil discovers a monarch caterpillar feeding on common milkweed. Photo credit: Mo Theriault, Washington County Master Gardener

To learn about your favorite butterflies’ host plants, view this chart from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Know that when you plant host plants, they will get munched by hungry butterfly caterpillars. That’s what they’re for!  So plant extra in different parts of your garden if you also want harvests for your family.  

Butterflies get thirsty, but they have difficulty drinking from deep birdbaths.  So add a few rocks to your bird-feeder to make sipping easier.

Like beach-side sunbathers, butterflies bask.  They sun themselves to warm their wings to make them flight ready.  Set up a suitable sunning area by adding a few flat rocks to your garden.

Ever heard of puddling?  That’s what butterflies do when they sip water and nutrients from damp mud or sand.  I spied a dozen swallowtails doing this along a nearby creek recently. Magical.   Create a puddling area in your garden by keeping a small area of soil damp or by putting damp sand or soil in a shallow bowl.

Protect butterflies by avoiding chemical insecticides in your garden.  These chemicals most often can’t distinguish between insect pests and beneficial insects such as butterflies.

Welcome butterflies and other pollinators. Your garden and our community will be richer for it. 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County