Native ‘snow-sifting’ shrubs, small trees ideal

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One of the hardiest — and most invasive — native shrubs is Sympforicarpos — or snowberry; beloved by grouse and wild turkeys, they will overtake a landscape in one season. If you need permanent cover, use it: if not, don’t let it get started.

A few years ago, this column pointed out the efficacy of snow-sifting shrubbery such as Pachistima — variously known as Oregon box or Mountain Lover — which boasts year-round bright/dark green, shiny, toothed leaves and is a sure bet for best all-around shrub. In addition, its tangled branches and supple, leathery leaves allow the snow to sift entry to its base rather than collecting atop and crushing it.

Many other native and domesticated hybrids have this sifting trait as well. Mugho and other dwarf Pines and members of the needled Juniperus family.

Native Rocky Mountain Juniper (J. scopularum) with its loose-limbed, cedar-like foliage and dusky blue berries is a natural, with hybrids such as the Procumbens group, which spread out from a mounded form with an almost moss-like foliage add to the availability of choices. Tsuga Canadensis of the Hemlock family, is another great creeper, hardy to Zone 2, and T “Jeddaloah”, a dwarf conifer, cascades arching branches down embankments, over rocks and across the lawn if you let it.

T. “Cole’s Prostrate” spreads out dark green branches into a literal ground-cover that grows only a few inches high.

Ceanothus — or Buck-brush — isn’t particularly attractive, but serves as a great browse-plant for winter-hungry moose and deer. Shiny-leaved and great sifters, they are a boon during a snowy year. I have a few growing naturally, and am delighted each winter to see the deer-family members munching happily away.

You’ve already been warned of the danger of non-native Japanese Yew (Taxus custidata) which is deadly toxic to deer and other creatures (including our own youngsters) and know to eschew these. Seek out instead our only native Yew shrub, the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia).This latter is the one to provide lovely and safe spreading, mounding attractive winter-hardy plants.

If you’re purchasing a balled and burlaped shrub or small tree, take special care when planting. Make sure the hole you dig for it allows for plenty of welcoming mulch and growth expansion as the roots relax outward. Number One, never lift the tree by its trunk! Carefully carry in the rootball to the planting site.

If you’ve been told it’s OK to plant within the burlap, think twice. When we were planting new trees in the then-new Arboretum some 20 years ago, we lost a few for listening to that casual remark.

Either remove the burlap or slit into fine strips for root action and eventual decomposition. This also gives you an easier access to the roots, which must be sorted out and pulled into proper position, cutting into them with a long sharp knife if necessary. If roots are enclosed in a wire frame, I’d think twice about leaving it as well. Either cut it with heavy snips for complete access of roots to soil, or remove entirely. Water the empty hole when planting, then firm the soil, mulch and water again.

As to your extant shrubs, we’re not sure what kind of a winter awaits us, but being prepared is the best course of action. While heavy snows serve as excellent mulch for dormant gardens, they can wreak havoc with tall shrubs and those planted under or along your house’s eaves. Columnar-type Juniper — arborvitae — especially is subject to this, with its up-growing, tight-knit branches forced apart and often breaking under snow-load.

Burlaping or wrapping with light rope will usually do the trick and allow you to save yourself grief in the spring. Have a bundle of burlap and light rope ready to wrap or bind your at-risk shrubs, and you’ll be ahead of the game when the warning forecast comes. Just this little advance action can save you from grief in the spring.

Whether there is snow or not, covering protection is practical, since the lack of snow is often even more dangerous. Dry, freezing winters — especially with cold winds, can kill shrubs, small trees — including orchards — and many ornamental perennials. While natives are pretty much immune to all the whims of weather — domestic shrubs often need help through an adverse winter.

Too, outside potted plants also need extra care, and filling the pots with leaves (for root protection) — and a wrap around the plant itself, can make the difference that will get them through the winds of winter.

As for your small trees, take a hint from my last winters’ brainstorm and wrap the tender little trunks with old ace bandages!

While we’re discussing winter preparation, don’t forget to leave a bundle of boughs, branches and other such pruned or wind-downed items in a protected corner for bird and Pine-jimmy protection from the weather and predators.

While there is still “browse” in the form of seed-heads and berries on many shrubs, it’s time to put out the feeders filled with sunflower seeds for the wonderful winter populations of chickadees, nuthatches, brown creepers, kinglets and various woodpeckers. Then have your binoculars close at hand for a season of bird-watching!

Valle Novak writes the Country Chef and Weekend Gardener columns for the Daily Bee. She can be reached at or by phone at 208-265-4688.

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