Gardening for Winter Interest

Gardening can be a four-season activity. We all know about the new colors and verdant growth of spring, the abundance of life in summer, and the waning harvests of fall, but winter is often disregarded as an important gardening season. I love my winter landscape and the season provides wonderful opportunities for unique garden appreciation. It begins by choosing to garden for winter interest.

Coneflowers lose little appeal in winter

You garden for winter interest expecting and looking forward to the days of cold. It’s not much different than planning your plantings to enjoy the color and texture and size of varied plants during their prime growing time. By gardening for winter interest you imagine how the same plants will look when covered with frost or ice or snow. You anticipate how they will appear when dead or dormant.

On cloudy, gloomy days the brown and plain foliage of dead flowers, grasses, and shrubs can be quite dreary. I’ll grant you that. The same can be said of new, plain growth during dark, rainy days in spring. But just as the returning sun creates a vibrant display of color and excitement when it glistens on the dew and raindrops nestling on the young plants, the remnants of a winter storm can transform the garden into a brilliant, magical wonderland.

When the wonderful combination of frigid temperatures and moist air combine appropriately, a cold night meets a sunny morning with ice crystals covering the landscape. The dreary brown plants are transformed into shimmering, diamond-encrusted works of natural art. This is when the garden offers beauty that competes dramatically with the highlights of summer.

Sun-loving Heliopsis covered with crystals

Gardening for winter interest has a few basic steps. First is the selection of appropriate plants.  Some plants that provide a strong presence in a spring or summer garden, like Hostas, Lilies, and Irises, have their flowers and leaves wither away with the cold temperatures of fall; there is little left of them in winter. Selecting plants whose physical structure can stand up to strong winds, freezing weather, and heavy snow allows the winter garden to exist. At this point I’m not talking about plants that can survive and live in the cold, but about plants with sturdy stalks, and flowers, and branches after the green life has faded. Plants that offer height above the blanket of snow and ice are better than low plantings that will be covered and unappreciated.

In my garden, sunflowers, coneflowers, Yarrow, Heliopsis, and Kniphofia offer great scaffolds for the natural ice and snow sculptures of winter. Ornamental grasses and shrubs and bushes anchor the garden when snow falls.

Sunflowers with icy blossoms

Some plants like Red Twig Dogwood and Burning Bush are at their best in winter as they display dynamic reds against the white snow. Plants with yellow, red, and purple branches are readily available to add a rainbow of color that is often missing in a typical gardener’s winter yard once green leaves have disappeared.

Of course plant selection for winter interest does include life; you can think beyond the death of plants and how they look in that state. Ornamental Kale can survive harsh conditions in many regions and displays beautiful greens and purples and reds even when covered in ice. Witch Hazel is a large shrub that flowers in winter. Holly with its evergreen leaves and berries welcomes Christmas with green and red. The parasitic evergreen plant Mistletoe achieved its mythical powers because of its colorful winter state. Mountain Laurels and Yews are evergreens many gardeners overlook in their landscape. There are many colorful winter plants available for your garden.

The second step in gardening for winter interest is to leave your plants in place through the cold months. Many gardeners are anxious to clean up their beds as soon as the first freeze fades the foliage. They hack at and pull up the dead, dying, and dormant plants and cart them away. They rake fallen leaves into bags and leave the garden barren, ready for spring planting.  There is nothing wrong with gardening this way, but when old man winter arrives with his brush and palette there is no canvas to receive the artwork.

Ornamental grass shimmers in the morning sun

Besides giving birds and wildlife food and cover in winter, leaving your plants in place will add visual variety to your landscape. The textures and shapes of bare plants after their leaves are gone can only be appreciated during the shortest days of the year. There will be time to clean up the garden in spring when the winter appeal wanes.

Delaying pruning is easy to do. Leave excess branches on trees in early winter. Don’t cut the stalks of perennial flowers. The erratic and ungainly growth of flower and shrubs pose nicely in frigid weather.

Simply selecting plants based on how they will look in winter and then leaving them to compose their own beauty is all that is needed to create a garden with winter interest.

To begin next year’s winter garden look at your landscape and those of your friends and neighbors. Do you have a spot that is glaringly bare and lifeless in winter? Do you see something that stands out as brilliant in another’s landscape? Tour a local botanical garden for ideas. Take the time to observe plants in winter. Think beyond the color and life of summer.

Even garden art joins the icy montage

During the dark days of winter cold, gardeners often fail to see their garden’s beauty, focused on how it will look when the flowers return. While I fall into this pattern too, it only takes an ice storm or cold morning fog to awaken a sense of wonderment. Traipsing through the snow, hearing the sharp crunch of ice, I peer into the world of Jack Frost. It’s amazing how a garden can feel so alive when so little is actually growing. It’s all about the icy visuals and sustaining your garden for winter interest.


2 responses to this post.

  1. This is a insightful post. Thanks to you…


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