Beech tree leaves in December.

December in Atlanta is a great time to reflect on the past growing season and make plans for next year. And, while there are still chores like last minute weeding and deadheading, as well as planting spring bulbs we intended to plant in November, the pace is slower and the days are shorter. This means that there is more time to sit by the fire pit and relax without feeling guilty. 

The Bones

December is also a good time to examine the “bones of your garden.” 

I heard or read somewhere a long time ago that if your garden looks good in winter, then it probably looks good throughout the year. This makes sense to me. While I don’t recommend a garden filled with evergreens, I do like the effect of combining select evergreens and deciduous trees and shrubs for the best effect. 

When you design your garden, you may want to consider plants for the ceiling, the mid-ground, the foreground, and the carpet (such as ground covers or turf). Just make sure you never plant English Ivy for your carpet or anywhere else. While it is evergreen, it will quickly take over and crowd out desirable perennials, and annuals. It also competes with shrubs and trees that are trying to get established. It really is a bully. 

Groundcovers for shade

If you have a shade garden, consider native plants for ground covers.  A few well-placed groups of evergreen ferns — like our native Christmas fern or evergreen hardy ginger — will provide a green carpet throughout the year.

There are four species of hardy ginger (no relation to the ginger you eat) Hexastylis that grow in Georgia but Hexastylis arifolia has the most widespread distribution in the state.

You may not recognize the name but if you take a walk in the woods, these plants may look familiar. Hardy gingers also are known as “little brown jugs” for their distinctive flowers that look very much like miniature jugs. You have to peek under the leaves to get a good look at them.  Recently, a garden friend said someone had complained that a hardy ginger was taking over their garden. I had not heard of this problem, but even native plants can be aggressive. Just make sure you sit them in the right spot. Despite its long moniker, Hexastylis shuttleworthii var. haperi ‘Callaway’ is a charmer year around. With its small shiny mottled foliage it stands out in the garden especially in winter. Combine it with native ferns and spring wildflowers. 

Winter Sculptures 

As a lover of trees in every season, I look forward to the winter silhouettes of majestic oaks, diminutive dogwoods and the native Tupelo or Black Gum, Nyssa sylvatica. As this tree matures the bark develops a distinctive blocky look.

 All of these native trees create living sculptures in the winter garden. Another favorite and one that holds on to its leaves until spring, is our native American beech, Fagus grandifolia. The tawny leaves persist through the winter and finally drop in spring before the new foliage appears. This noble tree makes a great specimen if you have the space as it is happiest if it can spread out and up, reaching heights of 50 feet to 70 feet, and sometimes up to 100 feet. The nuts are a favorite of squirrels and a variety of birds including woodpeckers. 

Deciduous hollies in December.

Hollies

Most people are familiar with hollies, but not all hollies are created equal.

For an elegant evergreen, our native American holly, Ilex opaca is hard to beat.

While most hollies require a male pollinator of the same species to ensure that the female holly produces its colorful berries, if you live near a wooded area, chances are there will be American holly to pollinate your female. This beauty grows in full sun to half shade and can reach heights of  15-50 feet tall. I would plant three in a group or one for a specimen.

Make sure the soil is well drained. 

If you want to make a big splash with colorful fruits, plant some deciduous hollies in front of American hollies. Unlike the evergreen American hollies, deciduous types drop all their leaves in late fall and show off bright red, orange or yellow fruit (depending on the selection) throughout the winter. Winterberry, Ilex verticillata is a good choice for a deciduous holly because it will grow in well drained soils but also in soils that may be periodically flooded.

Florida Leucothoe (Agarista populifolia) around a tree trunk.

Evergreens

Below are a few native evergreens that are adaptable and easy to grow.

Florida Leucothoe (Agarista populifolia) is a large, multi-stemmed shrub with tall, arching branches. It produces masses of tiny, fragrant, bell-shaped, creamy white flowers in spring and is a welcome addition when combined with deciduous native azaleas on other shrubs and trees. 

Small Anise tree (Illicium parviflorum) has olive green leaves and an upright habit. It makes a good informal screen or evergreen backdrop. It will tolerate sun or shade and moist or dry soils. The leaves are fragrant when you break or crush them.

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is a tough native tree that is drought resistant and adaptable. The berry-like cones that female trees produce provide food for many different birds. There are numerous selections and forms of this tree with different shades of green and blue-green foliage. Great for a specimen or an evergreen screen. Avoid planting them near apple trees due to Cedar apple rust. 

All of the plants highlighted here offer interest throughout the year but many of them shine in the winter landscape. So, when you think about adding plants to your garden, make sure to consider what they will look like in every season. 

Erica Glasener

Erica Glasener is the Community Involvement and Events Manager for the Piedmont Park Conservancy and serves on the advisory board for Trees Atlanta.