- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Almost everyone knows you need evergreen shrubs in your front foundation planting. Without them, you would have nothing

but maybe some stems and twigs to nestle your house into its natural setting through the long, cold winter.

Most people also know you need evergreens if you're planting a screening along your property line. After all, you aren't screening something out if you can see through the screen in winter. But it isn't that simple.

A foundation planting of nothing but yews and rhododendrons is boring as is the all-too-common planting of Japanese hollies and evergreen azaleas. Also boring and perhaps otherwise unwise is the screening too many homeowners plant a row of Leyland cypress. Leyland cypress fill in quickly, but they also grow swiftly to 30 feet and taller, too big for the average homestead unless you have something huge to screen out.

The point is, deciduous shrubs are valuable additions to predominantly evergreen plantings for the contrast they provide and for the seasonal interest of their flowers and the changing colors of their foliage. Furthermore, as an award-winning landscape designer pointed out, "They dilute the cost a little bit." In other words, they're cheaper than evergreens. That's a bonus.

The aforementioned designer, who lives and works on Long Island and just happens to be my brother Tom, took me this spring to see some gardens he had designed. Also while I was in New York, he let me take a look at the plans on his drawing table.

I believe every good landscape designer has a palette of favorite plants he or she finds most attractive and useful in creating magnificent gardens, depending on the location and conditions surrounding the property in question. If you tour a dozen gardens created by any given landscape architect or designer, you will be able to identify these "signature plants" because, although each garden is different, the same plant will appear again and again, planted happily in groups of three or five or in masses of 100 or more.

The best designers have a working knowledge of literally thousands of plants, and if you ask them to list their favorites, the list invariably runs to 100 and more. Still, a close look at the work of a good architect or designer will reveal a smaller palette of signature plants.

I identified such a plant in the plans on my brother's drawing table, a deciduous shrub that works nicely in foundation plantings and in the foreground of taller screen plantings. It is the spirea Goldflame.

While it is not evergreen, the Goldflame retains its foliage late into December and leafs out again in March. The ones I saw in gardens on Long Island had attractive new reddish gold foliage in late March. That foliage would appear about the same time or a little earlier here in the Washington area. Come April, the foliage changes to a soft chartreuse.

Back from New York, after determining that deer do not like them, I planted three Goldflame spireas in my gardens in mid-April. The foliage, still light green, will change in the fall to a burnished gold, providing a third season of contrast to the typical evergreen greens. This colorful changing of foliage is the primary reason designers use Goldflame spirea, but there is the bonus of pink flowers in the summer.

This spirea is relatively easy to maintain and isn't finicky about soil. It prefers sun but will accept partial shade. It grows to 3 or 4 feet tall, but if you clip it back a little after it flowers, it will remain smaller.

Other spireas are useful for different reasons. The spirea Snow Mound is better at full height for screening. In effect, it does what a rhododendron might do but at a quarter of the cost and it is hardier and easier to maintain.

The spirea Shabori is grown for its long-blooming red, pink and white flowers, all on the same plant. Two smaller spireas, Lime Mound and Little Princess, grow to only about 18 inches tall and flower in July and August. They can be used as perennials with the difference being that perennials are herbaceous and disappear during the winter.

Spireas maintain a twiggy presence through the winter, although they may be cut back severely in the fall if you choose.

Other deciduous plants I identified in Tom's signature palette were red- and yellow-leafed barberries and a range of viburnums. A viburnum he particularly likes is the Linden viburnum, which grows to about 6 feet with greenish white flowers in May, red fall foliage and huge clusters of red berries that hang through the winter until February. It tolerates shade.

The classic double-file viburnum has long been my favorite for its pretty white flowers in May. It prefers sun. A new variety of the double-file viburnum is the Shasta double-file viburnum, which was cultivated at the National Arboretum in Northeast and boasts even larger flowers.

Another classic viburnum, valued for its scent, is the Korean spice viburnum, which has clusters of fragrant white flowers with a tinge of pink in April.

Viburnums, which also have evergreen varieties, generally grow to 6 feet or more, making them excellent plants for screening along property lines. The best design for such a screening would include some evergreen conifers and perhaps some hollies for foliage contrast and maybe some red- or yellow-twig dogwoods for winter color. Yellow-twig dogwoods work well in early spring when combined in a grouping with Goldflame spirea, which are then leafing out in reddish gold against an evergreen background.

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