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Cool Color

By Steven Chamblee
Contributing Writer

Texas is blessed with wonderfully mild winters that are punctuated with a dozen or two days of Arctic misery. The winters allow Lone Star gardeners to grow color plants year-round. The reliable terrific trio of pansies, kale and snapdragons fill landscape beds from Texarkana to Terlingua, making our cool-season gardens the envy of anyone living north of the Red River. Without a doubt, the terrific trio is our most reliable and toughest winter-color plants and should continue to provide the lion’s share of cool-season color.

Gardeners by nature are inquisitive and a bit restless, though, so we always pine for something new and different, even if it’s not tried-and-true. Despite the double rainbow of colors available in that terrific trio, we thirst for something different. Fortunately, some good options are available.

Ornamental mustard looks a bit like romaine lettuce, but with an art degree from Juilliard. Large, burgundy-colored leaves are bright green underneath, creating a striking statement anywhere in the garden. Mustards are particularly beautiful when planted by themselves in containers, where the foot-long, highly textured foliage becomes a living sculpture. Choose ‘Osaka Red,’ ‘Brazen Brass’ or ‘Garnet Giant’ for bold foliage; choose ‘Red Splendor’ or ‘Scarlet Frills’ for deeply-incised leaves and a feathery look. All of these varieties are indeed edible, but you need to make a choice early. Harvest the leaves to eat while they are young and tender or let them grow to maturity and enjoy the beauty of the fully-grown leaves.

Swiss chard is a rhubarb-like vegetable that features fantastic foliage and stellar stalks. Many colors are available, ranging from ‘Peppermint’ with pink and white striped stalks to ‘Bright Lights’ with dark-green, wrinkled foliage and a striking range of colored stalks — white, yellow, orange, red and bright pink — all from the same packet of seeds! Swiss chard can live for several years if left undisturbed and given good culture.

Dianthus, a multi-species genus of somewhat dainty herbaceous perennials that can tolerate mild winters without going dormant, has come a long way in the last few years. Plant breeders have widened the color palette and textural forms. Many have pushed the quiet charm of “cottage garden pinks” aside in favor of show-stopping, eye-popping bright colors.

This is especially true of the Amazon series of dianthus, created by a complex hybridization of three different species that resulted in, essentially, a Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) on steroids. This stunningly robust plant features lots of small flowers forming large, brilliantly-colored balls and stems big and beefy enough to hold the whole floral circus securely aloft. (I’m thinking a name change is in order; from “Sweet William” to “Big, Bad Bill.”)

Planted in the fall, it will supply an adequate display through the winter until the real magic happens in early spring. Early March sees this plant double in size within a few weeks, then smother itself with so many blooms that the foliage is invisible. This puppy does not disappoint. (Also of note: Another similar series of interspecific hybrids is named Jolt.)

Cyclamen is at the other end of the robustness scale, but it is irresistible to many gardeners. The perfect little heart-shaped, pattern-embossed leaves; the curious pastel-colored petals that fold back upon themselves to point upward; and the orderly, tight-’n’-tidy habit all combine to create the perfect boutique plant. This dainty wee beauty fits the bill when you want a sophisticated little dessert — a botanical petit four, if you will, to taste with your eyes. Grown widely as a small houseplant, cyclamen is pretty tender outside — hardy to only about 26°F. Plant breeders have been busy with this plant as well, creating expanded color ranges and flower shapes, including frills and curls. (Check out www.cyclamen.com for some fun.) Technically a perennial, the scorching summer heat keeps cyclamen to an annual status in gardens here.

Stock (Matthiola incana) is an essential cool-season color plant for many gardeners. Sure, the flowers are lovely, and the plant is easy to grow. However, it’s the intoxicating fragrance that makes this beauty so desirable. Most stock plants sold in local Texas nurseries are 10-to-12-inch tall, double-flowered dwarfs, the perfect size to mix with pansies or violas in pots or in the ground. In cooler climates, larger varieties (up to three feet tall) are commonly sold as summer-color plants.

Wallflower (Erysimum/Cheiranthus) is another spectacular performer for annual cool-season color. Usually acquired in bloom and planted in the fall, wallflower slowly fades to a vegetative state during the coldest part of winter, but it rebounds with a vengeance in early spring, quickly smothering itself with blossoms.

At only 12 to 15 inches tall, wallflower blends well with pansies, stock and Iceland poppies. It hits the trifecta of horticultural desirability — excellent, long-lasting color; ample pollen for bees; adaptability to different soil types; and magnificent fragrance! (I know, that’s four attributes, but let’s just go with it, shall we?)

Wallflower might be as popular as pansies for cool-season color in Texas if not for its Achilles heel — temperatures of about 25° F put it into a stupor from which it does not recover. In mild winters, it will be the most beautiful plant in your garden. In hard winters, you will need to remove it as it declines. The Sugar Rush series is tops around North-Central Texas, while the taller, 30-inch purple ‘Bowles Mauve’ is a longtime favorite in heirloom gardens.

Give your cool-season terrific trio some company this winter. You might just end up with a dynamic dozen.

BRING IT IN!

Fortunately, container gardening offers great advantages — medium control, excellent drainage and isolation from soil-borne diseases.

Unfortunately, plants in containers cannot take advantage of earth-warmth, so they are more prone to freezing temperatures (by about eight to 19 degrees) than their in-ground counterparts.

Container plants, though, are portable. For a quick, overnight cold snap, they can be moved into a protected corner and covered with freeze cloth. For extended cold snaps, move them into a garage or other freeze-protected locations.

COVER IT UP!

When the weather forecaster tells you that ol’ Blue Norther is on the way, it’s time to cover your winter-color plants. Even a quick overnight dip down below 25°;F can cause freeze damage on many crops.

Frost cloth — a thin, white, puckered fabric — is the preferred blanket to protect cool-season color crops. It can prevent windburn and give an additional 10 to 15 degrees of protection. Available in rolls up to 250 feet long and 20 feet wide, frost cloth is the choice of professional horticulturists and landscapers, as it is easy to size, cut and install. Most nurseries can supply this product in several sizes, but don’t wait until the day before the big freeze hits to go shopping — almost every nursery sells out of frost cloth within a day or two of when the local meteorologists announce an impending winter storm.

FIVE ADDITIONAL
WINTERTIME
COLOR CHOICES

Other suggestions for great cool-season color include:

‘Redbor’ kale. This burgundy, frilly-leaved kale can reach three feet tall and seven feet when the yellow flowers bolt. Very cold hardy.

Snapdragons. These are tougher in the winter in their natural, tall forms. Try the varieties ‘Sonnet’ and ‘Liberty’ as both reach 24 inches in height.

Dusty miller. An old standby in winter gardens, dusty miller creates a silvery foil to your color plants. ‘Silver Dust’ is a new cultivar; ‘New Look’ has wider leaves.

Iceland poppies. An excellent addition to winter-color beds; the Champagne Bubbles series is excellent.

Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). A relative of artichoke, this wintertime option is monstrously huge. Astonishingly textured, silvery leaves create a stunning sculpture that works with or without floral accompaniment.

The author gratefully acknowledges the input of Tucker Reed, Greg Grant and Kenneth Cranfill on this article.

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