christmas wreath, natural wreath, holiday wreathDecember is a month of transition in the gardener’s mind — I look at it like a well-deserved break and savor every second.

The growing season is well and truly over, but most of us are not quite ready to begin the daydreaming which will eventually lead to spring.  We’re still thinking about this year’s successes and failures and needing a change of pace before a new year brings new challenges.

It is a resting month in the Mid-Atlantic garden, which is certainly convenient as it is not a resting month in any other part of our lives. The holiday season –  frantic and beautiful – occupies and delights us.

Let it…and let go of the garden for just a little while.

If you simply can’t get plants off the brain, I’ve got a few December beauties for you to consider in ‘I should have planted that!’ this month.  Look at the gardens around you for other planting choices next spring.


‘I should have planted that!” for December’s garden:

Whether you live in the Mid-Atlantic of the United States (like me) or New Zealand (gotta dream), when going on drives or walks in your area of the world, look around each month for plants that turn you on and make you think “I should have planted that!”  Or indeed, “Damn.  I should have planted that.”  Snap a picture to ID later at a garden center, or simply ask your neighbor what they’re growing and make their day. 

Carefully observing other gardens month-to-month and putting in some of the wonderful things you see during the next planting season allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with timing.

Here are four shrubs that I’m often asked about at this time of year – wonderful accent greens that not only look terrific outside, but spruce up your decorating inside. As long as it’s been a cold season, you can save some of your pruning tasks for this month and use the trimmings for wreaths, garlands, front doors and sophisticated tablescapes.

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’
I adore this variegated, textured, glorious shrub.  Introduced by Brookside Gardens (nearby), it very rarely suffers any wind damage over winter and new growth emerges pink/orange-red to contrast with the yellows, greens, and cream of older leaves.  ‘Goshiki’ does well in sun and in part shade, and can tolerate many soil types, with the exception of constantly saturated ones.  Eventually it can reach 10′ tall by 4′ wide, but that will be a way down the road.  Mine is lightly trimmed each year and probably puts on a couple inches at most. Though O. heterophyllus flowers, I have yet to see flowers on this cultivar. Z6-11.


Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki'

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ in autumn.

Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’
Many gardeners on the East Coast and Midwest US are suffering right now from box blight, which is a devastating disease without cure, so it would be foolish to suggest you plant your garden’s bones in box at this point. However, I am not a fatalist, and planting one or two will not cause you too much stress in the future if you were to lose them.  Though slow growing, boxwood is an extremely versatile shrub and copes well with full sun or full shade sites – you’ll find growth reduced in full shade and a bit of burning in full sun.  It is also incredibly easy to propagate from cuttings and does very well in containers.


variegated boxwood

Variegated boxwood along my stone wall. These are two years old and next year will be sheared.


‘Variegata’ is one of the best and easiest to find.  It has strong variegation that isn’t reduced in the shade, grows uniformly pyramidal and is the single best accent green for wreaths.  So easy I have planted clearance shrubs in out of the way places, forgotten about them and come back to find them ticking along happily neglected. As an American boxwood cultivar, it can get quite big, but as it only puts on a couple inches a year and responds well to pruning, it’s really not an issue.  4-8′ tall Z5-8

Pyracantha ‘Silver Lining;’ 
You’ll puzzle your visitors with this one. The pink/cream/green variegation might not be normal for a pyracantha, but the thorns sure are.  This mounding shrub doesn’t tend to climb strenuously and prefers to gently mound, throwing occasional long laterals that need trimming.  It copes exceptionally well in dry soils and within the lower range of ‘full sun;’ and at this time of year, the cold creates a strong pink flush that contrasts beautifully with the heads of grasses or hydrangeas.

silver lining pyracantha

Pyracantha ‘Silver Lining’

In a cold winter it will lose all those leaves by the end, but never fear, they’ll be back. It is said to flower and berry like other pyracanthas.  I have not seen this and have grown it for several years, but I would imagine such frivolity is for those grown in the middle of its hardiness zones – mine’s too busy growing new leaves. Up to 4’tall and gets there quickly. Z7-10.

Ligustrum x ‘Sunshine’
Sunshine is not just needed in the summer months, but in the winter when our gardens are feeling old and grey.  This sterile privet cultivar performs beyond expectations and is still looking fantastic during the month of December, covered in small but bright yellow leaves.  It is a rapid grower and though it is billed as a small shrub at a height and spread of 3-6′, I have a friend who swears he saw one at nearly 10′.


Ligustrum x ‘Sunshine’ in December with the bright branches of Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’


‘Sunshine’ is so vigorous that I can believe it – but luckily it responds exceptionally well to pruning.  If I had the desire to water a few more containers, I’d try out a bit of topiary on it. Z6-10

Now back to that relaxing:

December’s Garden Outside:

  • Put up a string of lights
  • Hang a wreath
  • Take a winter walk in a natural setting
  • Collect wild materials like bittersweet, rose hips and hickory nuts to decorate the house.
  • Look out on the vistas that winter reveals when leaves fall
  • Wrap up warm
  • Go to a holiday event.

December’s Garden Inside:

  • As much as I advocate doing nothing this month, your indoor plants still need you.  If you have them, stay on schedule with watering and feeding.
  • Water your amaryllis bulbs, admit to yourself you got them in the pots too late for a Christmas bloom and look forward to a new year filled with flowers.

signature Marianne Willburn


“In  drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look”

– John Keats
– from “In drear-nighted December”