Something that the do-it-yourself gardener and permaculturist often don’t think about when planting a garden is how things will LOOK in the middle of winter. This is the perfect time to evaluate that. How DID your garden look this winter? At least the parts that you saw every day. Often winter comes and everything in our garden goes dormant and bare and dreary looking. Granted, looks are not the be-all and end-all of garden design, in permaculture circles especially. There are many things that might take precedence in choosing spots for the plants you grow. But if you have a choice, this is a worthy thing to keep in mind. Think how much more cheerful your garden could look if you can make it beautiful as well as productive – even in the dead of winter.
Accomplishing this requires at least a fair number of evergreen plants. Fortunately there are a great many useful plants that do not lose their leaves in the winter. If you have lots of sun, herbs are a favorite, with Lavender, Sage, Oregano and a few of the Thymes being at the top of the list (some Thyme varieties lose their leaves in winter here). Both Rosemary and Winter Heather are important early bee food sources that bring a big splash of flower color to your garden during the dreariest of winter days. They have many medicinal uses, as do the other four culinary herbs, so they are hardly just decorative.
Here in Oregon we are fortunate to have a large number of great native plants that are evergreen as well as food bearing and/or medicinal. They are often available in other parts of the country and the world as well:
Oregon Grape has a tall form (Mahonia aquafolium), a medium form (Mahonia nervosa) and a low spreading form called Creeping Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens). All of them are evergreen and have sunny yellow flower clusters in early spring followed by edible berries. Several parts of the plants are important sources of medicine and dye as well, so they make a great addition to your garden for many reasons. They are an early spring bee food too.
Kinnickinnick (Acrtostapholys uva-ursi) is a popular low growing ground cover with small bell shaped flowers in early spring followed by red berries. It’s been used as a diuretic and urinary antiseptic for over 1000 yrs. It’s found in all herbal remedies for urinary ailments, as well as salves for wound healing.
Evergreen Huckleberry is a beautiful native west coast shrub that can get 15 ft. tall in the shade but will stay around 3 feet in full sun. The berries make delicious pies and jams, the flowers are lovely little pink bells and the small shiny foliage turns reddish in a cold winter. It has several medicinal uses. A really pretty plant to put front and center in your landscape.
Salal (Gaultheria procumbens) is a broadleafed evergreen shrub that grows into small thickets 3′ – 6′ tall depending on how much sun it gets (it’s shorter in full sun). It’s dainty blueberry type bell flowers become fat black berries that were a staple food for the native people of the west coast. Although they are sometimes bland they can also be delicious if grown under the right conditions. They make a tasty and long lasting fruit leather when mixed with other berries. Salal greens are so attractive and long lasting cut that they are often used by florists. I like to make a greenery “bouquet” of them in the winter, for spots in my house where there is not enough light for a live plant. The leaf has a long history as a medicine for wounds, coughs, colds and digestive problems.
Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana) is an evergreen iris native from Santa Barbara to Oregon – it likes a shady moist soil situation and adds a little vertical accent wherever you put it. The strong fiber in the leaves can be used to make cord or rope and paper.
Coastal Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) is a fruiting evergreen groundcover that grows in sun or shade and will take considerable tromping on which makes it a good candidate for an alternative lawn. The berries, I’ve read, are delicious. For some reason mine have never gotten berries. A poultice of the chewed leaves can be used to treat burns and a tea from the leaves will treat several conditions.
Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum). Another native groundcover for deep shade (it struggles in full sun here), was at one time used for tea and flavoring but has been judged inedible by our FDA. Worth growing for it’s beauty alone.
Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana) is a lovely little flowering shamrock-leaf plant for shade, that creates a dainty evergreen groundcover. It’s leaves are lemony flavored and can be eaten raw or cooked and it has several medicinal uses, so is a worthy addition to a permaculture garden – or any garden!
Bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis) is a sweet 4”-6” groundcover in the dogwood family. The white flower is very obviously a dogwood flower – followed by a red berry which was used for food by natives in this area.
Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii) is a fragrant evergreen creeping groundcover with a minty taste. Does well with or without summer water on the west coast. It’s not aggressive but will grow quickly in good soil with plenty of moisture. Rarely seen in nurseries but can be found online.
And then there are these evergreen Non-Natives:
Wintergreen and Lingonberry – both slow-growing groundcovers with edible berries. Wintergreen is an east coast native and also has medicinal properties. Lingonberry makes great preserves and wine.
“Sunshine Blue” Dwarf Blueberry – a beautiful 3-4 ft. semi-evergreen shrub that get bright pink flowers (unlike most blueberries), followed by small tasty blueberries. The leaves turn red in the fall and often will hang on all winter. This Blueberry is good for warmer climates and will take more shade than most and still produce fruit. It’s the one blueberry that does well in my shady garden.
Add a few spring flowering bulbs and leave space for some annual flowers in the summer and you will have an entry garden that looks good all year round – a little food for the soul on a gloomy winters day….