Bright winter colours serve up cheer

A gardening column by nursery manager and author Mike Lascelle

I was going through my past articles recently (I check them periodically to make sure I don’t repeat myself), when I noticed that my topic last year was a eulogy celebrating the life of Marge Saunders.

So this season I thought I’d lighten things up a little and tell you a personal story somewhat related to this week’s topic, brightening the winter garden.

It all started several years ago, when I made the mistake of buying my eldest daughter, Nicole, a hat, scarf and glove set for Christmas – the mistake being that I, as a father, could ever be trusted to purchase tasteful outerwear.

Since Nicole liked pink, I went with the bright fuchsia-coloured set – which surprisingly wasn’t the problem.

She opened the gift that morning with an air of caution (after all, it was Christmas and you shouldn’t hurt people’s feelings), but it was only after she put the hat on (at my insistence) that the spontaneous laughter erupted, including my own.

It looked like she had placed an upside-down neon pink garbage pail on her head, hence its nickname, ‘the bucket hat’.

To make things worse, I immortalized the moment by getting it all on our Christmas video that year.

Nicole jokingly swore revenge, but since I had many outstanding plots pending from often embarrassed daughters, I didn’t take the threat too seriously – that was, until last Christmas.

I knew something was up when Nicole handed over a ‘special’ present and all three daughters were grinning from ear to ear like the Grinch.

It turned out to be a Christmas sweater, a Joseph’s Coat of many colours with every imaginable seasonal cliché knitted into it – something that would make Bill Cosby’s 1980s sweaters blush with modesty.

With camera in hand, Nicole insisted that I try on my ‘new’ sweater (actually, it was a vintage piece purchased on eBay) because it would be insulting if I didn’t even wear it once. Grudgingly, I complied and for the 30 seconds that it was actually on my body, there are probably just as many photographs – as Nicole’s Nikon camera is pretty fast.

Despite my traumatic experience, there are times when bright colours do serve to cheer us up a little.

By way of example, you really can’t go wrong adding a little red to the garden to liven things up for the holidays.

So whether it’s berries or flowers, red stems or foliage – here are my top picks for the Christmas decorating season:

Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ – what I like about this winter camellia is its habit of blooming right on time for Christmas, instead of slightly earlier like ‘Apple Blossom’ and ‘Jean May’.

The single red flowers are also very apropos and are nicely contrasted by golden-yellow stamens.

Vaccinium vitis-idaea Lingonberry is an ideal container specimen given its cold hardiness (Zone 2), glossy evergreen foliage and bright red fruit that cascades over the side of the pot.

The berries are edible (so you don’t need to worry about the kids) and make a great jelly, with a taste reminiscent of cranberry.

Nandina domestica ‘Moon Bay’ – Many of the Heavenly Bamboos shift to dramatic red or maroon hues during colder weather, maintaining that colouring through to spring.

‘Moon Bay’ in particular turns a deep rose-red, is compact (grows to three feet tall), has fine textured foliage and despite the common name (referencing bamboo) is non-invasive.

Cornus sericea – Redtwig Dogwood is a native deciduous shrub whose bright red stems have long been used for Christmas décor.

You can either purchase a one gallon pot and incorporate it into a mixed planter or if you already have it growing in your garden, just cut some of the juvenile stems and add them to your existing containers for a little contrast.

Gaultheria procumbens Wintergreen not only looks seasonably beautiful with its glossy green foliage (often tinted bronze-red in winter) and showy red berries, but it also smells great – just pinch a leaf for the scent of bubblegum.

This evergreen groundcover works well in containers but can be a little tricky to establish, so purchase larger sizes.

Ilex verticillata Winterberry is a large deciduous shrub (8-10’ tall) that is essentially a holly which loses its foliage, leaving the berry-studded stems behind.

Both male and female plants are required (these are often planted together in one pot) to produce the berries, but the cut stems work well in indoor arrangements or as an accent in existing outdoor planters.


Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author. Email him at


• I’ve uploaded a new story – The Meaningful of Life – to my blog at and all today’s plant selections can be viewed at