Just because it’s getting cold outside and your plants are settling down for a long winter’s nap is no reason your landscape can’t continue to serve as a source of inspiration. One of the true tests of your landscaping success is how pleasing your planting beds are to the eye after the last blossoms have faded and the last leaves have dropped. In winter, the landscape’s framework comes to the fore. With the eyes no longer engaged by foliage and flower, the strength or weakness of a landscape’s year-round design becomes apparent.
Take the opportunity over the next few months to assess your landscape with a critical eye. Ask yourself whether the trees and shrubs provide pleasing shapes and textures, and judge the backgrounds created by evergreens and hedges. Look for color interest in the stems and stalks of faded perennials and persistent fruits that have the added advantage of attracting wildlife. If you look around and see nothing but bare ground, consider making some significant design changes now so you can implement them in the spring.
In the winter landscape, color and structure come primarily from evergreens. A good mix of evergreen ground covers, shrubs, and trees will lend texture, volume, and visual depth to your design. Colors range from greens of virtually any shade to gold to frosty blue. Try unifying your beds and borders with plantings of English ivy, pachysandra, or vinca, and build on that foundation with small needled shrubs, such as mugho pines, birdsnest spruce, compact junipers, and spreading yews. If your landscape provides adequate protection from winter winds, you can work in some broadleaf evergreens, such as hollies, boxwood, rhododendrons, and azaleas, for contrasting leaf texture.
Try to keep the scale of your landscape in mind when making your selections. There are many dwarf evergreen varieties available, so you needn’t plant a full-size Colorado blue spruce to get winter interest. A popular favorite is the dwarf Alberta spruce. Growing only a few inches a year and reaching a maximum height of only 5-6 feet, the dwarf Alberta is ideal for small yards and garden spaces. It’s also hardy enough to stand up to the toughest winter our area can dish out.
If you have the room for them, larger needled evergreens provide an excellent opportunity for holiday decorating. Not only do they do a good job of supporting light strings, but they can also be lightly pruned to make garlands, wreaths, and bough bundles—a great way to bring some fragrance and holiday cheer indoors for the holidays.
Even without their leaves, deciduous trees and shrubs can lend winter interest to your landscape. Look for varieties with interesting bark or colorful stems. The paper bark maple and river birch are both good choices. The paper bark has rust-colored bark that, as the name implies, peels away to reveal a cinnamon-colored underbark. The river birch’s bark is a pretty reddish-brown and also exposes a lighter layer as the outer bark exfoliates.
To make a dramatic color statement, plant a thicket of red-twig dogwoods. The glossy, red canes are a great eye catcher, especially in large, isolated masses. The canes tend to lose their attractive red coloration as they age, however, so be prepared to prune the older growth back to the ground each year.
For a unique shape, add a contorted filbert (a.k.a. Harry Lauder’s walking stick) to your landscape for winter and growing-season interest. The stems of this deciduous shrub are twisted into corkscrews, giving it a wonderful gnarled appearance that really lends drama.
Berries are another valued feature in the winter landscape. Not only are they colorful, but they also encourage birds to make regular stops, adding life and activity to the winter landscape. Winterberries sport bright red fruits that will persist until the birds catch sight of them, and barberries and cotoneasters keep their fruit through Christmas. Many varieties of holly are also berry producers. Just be sure to plant both male and female together in the same area so pollination can take place. If you have room for a tree, consider adding a crabapple. Many cultivars have fruits that persist well into winter and are strikingly beautiful when laced with a light dusting of snow.
Though many gardeners cut their perennials back in fall, some varieties should be left standing for winter interest. This is especially true for ornamental grasses, such as Japanese silver grass and other Miscanthus species, which have interesting seed heads and foliage that turns an attractive red or brown during the winter months. Blue fescue clumps maintain a bright blue or dark green all winter long and should also be left unpruned. Sedum varieties, like showy stonecrop, also make a great winter statement. Domes of pink blooms turn reddish in late autumn and contrast nicely against the plant’s blue-green leaves.
When it comes right down to it, winter interest is anything you decide it should be. Some gardeners find subtle beauty in the somber hues of faded plants, while others like as much color as they can get. Still others could care less about the landscape in winter, preferring to put it out of their minds completely until growth begins again in spring. But even if you prefer to avoid going outdoors in the winter unless it’s absolutely necessary, you can still design a small winter garden to be enjoyed from indoors through a picture window.
Don’t know where to start? Try your local garden center. Most are happy to assist customers with landscape design projects, sometimes free of charge (provided you purchase your plants from them). You may just find the winter landscape captivating! ❦