Dressing Up The Winter Garden
By Sheryl Normandeau
Although cold-climate gardeners can take a respite from gardening activities during the winter, there is no need for the garden to look anything less than its best. There are many ways to create an interesting and beautiful winter garden, even if it is covered with a layer of ice and snow. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Consider the architecture of your garden. By this, I am referring to all of the shapes and forms that your garden is composed of, such as tidy rounded shrubs or hedges cut in a geometric design, or even the fascinating outlines of trees such as contorted hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’), weeping European birch, or crabapples and apples. Hardscaping materials are important, too: think of decorative gates or finials on fenceposts, pergolas, trellises, or garden statuary. It doesn’t matter if your garden is a formal or informal style—the shapes it contains can be very interesting, especially when covered with snow. One of my favorite examples is the cotoneaster hedge that borders one side of our property. Not only does it define a boundary and act as a living fence, but its straight, squared edges are attractive, all year ‘round. (As well, the persistent berries are food for hungry chickadees in the lean season, and the dense branches keep birds safe from predators and protected from the wind). If you look out over your garden in the winter and don’t see any features that instantly draw your eye, it may be time to put them on your shopping list for next spring!
Bark color and texture is extremely important in the winter garden. Shrubs such as dogwoods, with their brilliant yellow or red stems, instantly draw your gaze. The peeling bark of river birch, paperbark maple and crape myrtle and the smooth steel-gray trunks of American beech are also eye-catching.
If your trees and shrubs bear persistent fruit, nuts, or catkins, count that as a huge bonus in the winter garden! One of my favorite trees is the mountain ash (Sorbus spp.), with their clusters of orange or red berries that last well into the winter if the birds don’t take them all. The brilliant color of the fruit is an absolute knockout against freshly fallen snow. The green ash in our yard rarely loses its beautiful winged samaras in autumn, so we are treated to the sight of them during the coldest months of the year. Other trees and shrubs with persistent fruit include Viburnum spp., ornamental crabapples, and roses. Think about the seed cones found on various types of evergreens, as well as alder.
Conifers are an obvious choice for the winter garden, as they retain their foliage all year. There is no need to stick to green-leafed varieties, either—consider gold-tipped “Pfitzer” junipers, for example, or the smoky blue color of Picea pungens (Colorado blue spruce). If your yard is large enough, you can mix and match conifers for maximum impact: the texture of the leaves is just as important as the color of them, and the growth habit of the tree (columnar, groundcover, weeping, globe, upright) brings us back to the concept of architecture and its importance.
Broadleaf evergreens are also excellent selections for winter interest, with their glossy persistent leaves. Some, such as holly, also have decorative berries that stand out like jewels in the gray gloom of the season. Other examples of broadleaf evergreens include rhododendrons and azaleas, and the versatile boxwood, which is often used for hedging material or topiary.
The dried stalks and remnants of perennial grasses and herbaceous plants can be spectacular in the winter landscape. I don’t cut back my perennials in autumn, choosing instead to allow the seed heads of scabiosa and the dried flowers of lady’s mantle and yarrow to accumulate a pretty dusting of snow. (Leaving perennials as “snowcatchers” in the winter also helps to insulate them against fluctuations in temperature). If you grow switch grass, fountain grass or Calamagrostis spp., don’t trim them back – enjoy them as they sway in the wind and collect frost and snow on their tips. Perennial flowers that should be left for winter interest include asters, Echinacea and Echinops ritro. Perennial vines can be attractive in winter, as well. I love the fluffy seed heads of clematis and the dried leaves and flowers on my Engleman ivy—they are pleasing to the eye, as is the lingering shape of the vines on the trellis.
One more way to delight in the winter garden is to decorate with a seasonal focus. Welcome visitors to your door with containers filled with fresh evergreen boughs, stems filled with bright berries, and other trimmings from your garden. Even during this quiet, dormant season, the garden can still look refreshing and inviting!