January in the Garden

Hydrangea Haas' Halo, a lacecap smooth hydrangea

January is the quietest month in the garden, but it may also be the most important because it gives us the time and space to consider how to make the domestic landscape more interesting, more structured, more pleasing.

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American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

2020 PHS Gold Medal Plants

For 40 years, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has sought to help gardeners by assembling woody plants recommended by experienced professional horticulturists. In 2015, the Gold Medal Plant program expanded to include perennials and grasses, and the judges now also consider the ecological merits of the picks, including value to wildlife.

Coreopsis verticillata (Zagreb)

The newly released 2020 medalists are the American hornbeam, the black chokeberry Viking, the coreopsis Zagreb (pictured above), the cranesbill Biokovo, the smooth hydrangea Haas’ Halo and a Russian sage named Little Spire.

Thankfully, the program avoids novelty and the hype that comes with it. “They are plants that are proven, ones we know work in the landscape,” said Julia Thomé, who coordinates the program for the society, based in Philadelphia.

Cranesbill Biokovo (Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' (Cranesbill)

For example, the hydrangea Haas’ Halo is a lacecap variety of the smooth hydrangea — most people will know the Annabelle version — and will bloom each summer no matter the vagaries of the winter and early spring.

Russian Sage 'Little Spire' (Salvia yangii).

Shorter than most Russian Sages its mature height is only 2 feet (0.6 m).

Besides ecological value, the medal winners have embodied two important aspects of contemporary gardening. In the distant past, a shrub might burst into life and then be done for the year; forsythia and lilacs are two obvious examples. Today, we rightly expect garden plants to offer three or four seasons of interest by considering such attributes as stem color, the beauty of the trunk, fall coloration, berry set — virtues that also hone the gardener’s powers of perception.

Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)

The other element is the need for smaller plants, or smaller versions of old plants, to fit in gardens that are inherently smaller than the postwar suburban archetype.

Garden plants, like everything else, go in and out of favor. Some of the past winners have not held up; perhaps they are now sickly or, the reverse of that, too invasive. Some plants just need to go. I have a mango tree that I love (I brought the pit from a trip to Italy), but the tree attracts scale insects and has grown too large. So go it will.

Meserve Holly (Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Girl')

Given the shift toward hotter, longer summers, I would steer clear of recommendations that might have been a safer bet in the past. These include the spreading, fragrant sumac (2009) and the Meserve holly variety Blue Maid (1996). It is supposedly more heat-tolerant than other so-called blue hollies, but I wouldn’t want to spend five years testing it.

Florida Anise 'Halley's Comet' (Illicium floridanum)

Florida anise Halley’s Comet (2010), a variety of this southern evergreen that is more cold-tolerant and packed with colorful blooms in spring. It thrives in partial shade and rich, moist soil. Try that instead of a rhododendron. And add the Asian spicebush, Lindera glauca var. salicifolia (2009), to such a place. Its leaves are willow-shaped, turn a blazing orange in the fall and linger, dried but effective, into the winter. Finding one might be hard, but there is also a native species, Lindera benzoin, whose tiny yellow flowers appear in early spring on naked branches, signaling the end of a long winter. But winter isn’t that long, barely long enough to consider plants that will greatly improve the garden in the years ahead.

Asian Spicebush (Lindera flauca var. salcifolia)