Winter doesn’t have to be bleak and boring. Too often I see yards and commercial landscapes that have a depressing lack of interest in the winter (or summer, but that’s a rant for another time). The frustrating thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way! When deciding on garden plants, consider the “off” season and give more consideration to how things will look in the winter. Evergreen leaves – especially those that aren’t green, to spice it up a bit – are invaluable, but even colorful twigs, bark, and interestingly-shaped branching can go a long way in a season that it doesn’t take much to improve. Berries are even better, because not only do they add pizzazz, but birds usually snack on them sooner or later, so it also adds life to the landscape. By their nature, shrubs and trees are typically the go-to elements for adding winter interest, but perennials can as well. Let’s look at the elements for winter gardening and some great plant contributors.
One of the best trees for a wintery showcase is the River Birch. Peeling bark adds texture and the crevices make for great hunting grounds for woodpeckers and nuthatches. A light, fluffy snow also catches on the bark and branches, making for a picturesque landscape. A few varieties of Japanese Maple will have colorful bark on the young stems in winter, and the rosy-coral or orange-yellow hues give the garden a fiery accent that can’t be missed. Redder bark can be found on the aptly-named Redtwig Dogwoods, their cousin Silky Dogwood, and Virginia Sweetspire, whose young stems show off deep burgundy when set against light-colored walls, snow, or bright evergreens. Other trees with more subtle bark flaking that reveals different colors include Kousa Dogwood, Green Hawthorn, and Stewartia. Sycamore trees are fantastic beacons in the winter landscape with their white expanses of bark, but these are large trees and so should be sited where they can cast welcome summer shade and have room to settle-in without being too imposing. Winter Jasmine, a non-fragrant but bright yellow early-blooming groundcover, has bright green stems all year that look great when cascading over a retaining wall.
One of the best-known contributors here are the aptly-named Winterberries, a type of native holly that is spineless and loses its leaves in the winter, which is a good thing because it enables you an unobstructed view of lots of fruit. Traditionally red-berried, they also come in a red-orange and orange-yellow. A medley of colors would look really stunning in a cluster. (Remember the pollinator…a male winterberry is needed for fruits.) Pyracantha, or Firethorn, has red or orange berries and leaves that might be retained if the winter’s not too harsh. Purple Beautyberry and white Coralberry are fun uncommon colors that will last into at least early winter. Native trees Green Hawthorn, with their orangey-red berries, and Flowering Dogwood, with bright red berries, bring both color and bird life to the garden. If you’re lucky, a flock of elegant Cedar Waxwings can turn up one winter’s day and snack on the fruits, since they’re not as likely to visit a feeder.
Structure and Texture
Some plants don’t need to be flashy in color or even have seasonal changes to be eye-catching. The structure of their branches or even their overall shape is often enough in and of itself. Yucca are a prime example of this – their spiky leaves radiate out into a living firework or pom-pom (just don’t cuddle them or they’ll poke you) that makes a garden bed more exciting and can draw your eye away from other unsightly elements or uninspiring vistas. Pairing bold leaves like this with softer, finer textures can really make a foliage medley more interesting and dynamic. Another great element for drama and movement are the ornamental grasses – even though they are not green in winter, their leaves remain until strong winds blow them away (and some of them don’t even blink at that) and the seed heads and leaf blades dancing in the breeze is welcome movement in what can seem like a lifeless season. On a smaller scale, sedges (which technically aren’t grasses but can be used like them) can be evergreen as well as adding a shorter, soft tuft of fine foliage at the foot of shrubs or edging a walkway. Sweet Flag, another grass look-alike, makes for a great groundcover in moist areas and can be used in similar ways. You may have seen the golden Sweet Flag we have planted by a dark-needled pine in our front entrance area, and it’s a stunning combination all year. Even simple foliage pairings, such as bold, glossy “broadleaf” evergreens (think: hollies, laurels, euonymus) alongside needled evergreens (think: pine, hemlock, juniper) are a great way to add variety without loud colors or too many different elements. (Though the more, the merrier, if you ask me. Winter needs it!)
Color and Filler
I think of a yard like a coloring book…the more spaces that are filled-in with some kind of color (even if it’s just shades of green), the more interesting it’s going to be. (And isn’t it more fun to color it in than to leave it blank?) Not only do a number of evergreens come in yellows and blues, but some change color or offer uncommon hues like red, muted maroon, and orange. Several perennial succulents like Sedum and Hens & Chicks are great for adding these unexpected colors to a wintry landscape, especially when they’re combined in harmonizing or contrasting mixes. Their small statures lend them to uses in small spaces as accents around the feet of larger plants, tucked into rock walls, and edging walkways or containers. Even green fillers like Moss Phlox can dress-up a container or mixed bed as it provides a backdrop for other elements – fine grass blades, berries, and early-flowering bulbs. Cool-weather-loving cabbage, kale, and pansies/violas expand the palette further with just about every other color to add to your palette.
This just brushes the surface of the possibilities. You don’t have to put everything in at once – stagger it over several seasons if you need to (especially since some items I didn’t mention that can be hard to find in fall) – but this is a great time of year to take a look at the garden and evaluate how interesting it’ll look in a month or two. Don’t want to see that neighbor? Tired of hearing the highway? Want more birds to visit? Or do you just want something more interesting to look out at as you have breakfast or relax, gazing out the window? I would vote for “all of the above” and can say that each of those goals is worth striving for.