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Chesapeake Native Plant Gardens: December

Evergreens & Bark.

native evergreen shrub in December eastern red cedar 'grey owl'
Eastern Red Cedar 'Grey Owl' and Aromatic Aster

As December brings the winter solstice, evergreens and striking bark emerge as the dominant feature in our gardens. Well those, along with leaves! So much has been written and advised regarding leaving the leaves. The layer of leaves or "leaf litter" is where oodles of those beneficial insects, including fireflies, spend the winter. My takeaway is leave as many as you can on garden beds for as long as possible. In our 1/8 acre garden, we rake leaves on the grass to the beds or mulch the leaves with a lawn mower as much as possible. With two large oaks planted long ago as street trees in the front of our home, it's not possible to keep all the leaves. We add as many as we can to a sort of compost heap but with limited space, some get raked to the street for City pick-up. One thing I try to do is once the leaves are in the beds, I really make an effort to leave them there and let spring plants make their way through the wet, matted leaves. So far, no problems.

Asters Still!

Same story: different month! Do you still have asters (Symphyotrichum) blooming? These October Skies aromatic asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies'), planted in the tree lawn in poor soil in full sun still have color. Amazing.

December Berries

Fuschia colored berries on coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiuclatis) really plump up in December. These shrubs are in their third year. The fruit is becoming more plentiful and robust as they mature. The shape of the shrub is still a bit gangly. These shrubs can grow in shade in moist to dry soils. They might look better interspersed among some evergreens. These are planted as stand alones in a bed - not the best looking situation. Note to self.

Berries on mature vines like honeysuckle and Virginia creeper are still holding on, though in fewer numbers. Eastern red cedar berries are still plentiful.

native winterberry shrubs with berries in December

Berries on American beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana), red and black chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia and Aronia melanocarpa), winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and native viburnums (Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium) Maple-leaf (Viburnum acerifolium) are also holding on.

Bark with Presence

native river birch tree in December bark close-up
River Birch

Trees and shrubs with beautiful bark are the perfect companions to evergreens in the winter garden. River birch really stand out. Naturally growing in wetter areas, these trees grow just fine in average soil and are so worth it in terms of space. They are large trees, growing to 40' in height. The peeling bark of this young river birch is already a focal point in our garden.

native oaleaf hydrangea foliage in December
Oakleaf Hydrangea

A favorite shrub for both its structure and bark is oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). Our oakleafs still have a palette of dark maroon foliage in early December. Chances are by the end of the month, those leaves will have dropped revealing the bark. Native to the southeast, oakleaf hydrangeas are a four season shrub. Can't beat that!


native sweetbay magnolia in December
Sweetbay Magnolia

As fall foliage fades away, evergreens become more prominent to our eye. Stylistically, evergreens can be important for screening and structure. For wildlife, they are safe havens during the cold of winter. For us gardeners, evergreens are critical for giving us that fourth gardening season: winter! You can create a garden that can stand on its own with just evergreens. And a dusting of snow? Sublime. Each year, I try to identify the barest spot calling for an evergreen.

dwarf white pine in December native
Dwarf Eastern Pine

This dwarf eastern pine (Pinus strobus 'Nana') is hidden by perennials most of the summer and fall and only becomes noticeable in winter. It's the perfect evergreen to tuck in between larger plants where a bare spot may lurk.

You Can Still Plant

Planting native shrubs in December

Even though cooler temperatures have arrived, you can still plant! As long as the ground is not frozen, experts say it is fine to plant in December. They also say plants in pots are far more likely to be happier over the winter in the ground. I planted wild hydrangea shrubs this past weekend. The soil is still warm enough for roots to establish I am told by local experts. Gardening in cool weather is most delightful! Ok, not if it is windy...

Structured Perennials

These three perennials are still providing lots of striking structure. Plants like this near paths and patios can extend the growing season in interesting ways. More notes to self!

With winter holidays arriving, it's a wonderful thing to be able to take a moment to step outside to take in the air, the beauty of nature beginning to take a rest and the feel of the season.

Wishing You a Wonderful Winter.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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