The Winter Garden

Winter Interest in the garden

We think of the winter garden as a bleak time but there are many different ways that you can add interest to the winter landscape. Set against the stark white of snow, we see many plants in ways that we might not during the summer. We can also grow plants that serve as food sources for birds and other animals.

Flowering Plants

Hellebores are a fascinating plant and a great addition to your winter garden. Two of the more common hellebores are H. niger and H. orientalis.

H. niger is called the Christmas Rose. The plant doesn't necessarily bloom at Christmas time and may bloom any time from November to June. Its leaves are thick and dark green to shades of blue and will persist well into winter. Its origin is in the alpine areas of Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Flowers are generally white but range to pink and often have shades of green or purple.

H. orientalis is called the Lenten Rose. Its origins are in the Caucasus, Turkey and Ukraine. The leaves and flowers are similar to H. Niger but the plants tend to be a bit larger. H. orientalis hybridizes easily and in fact there are many different sub-species that are not true H. orientalis.

Hellebores prefer humus rich well drained soil. They don't like having their toes wet, so avoid soggy conditions. They do well in full sun to light shade. Hellebores are generally hardy to zone 4.

Arum italicum 'Pictum' is a plant that is hardy to zone 6. A common name is "Lords and Ladies." It has glossy, deep green leaves that are arrow-shaped with white veining. The plant blooms in the spring and the white blossoms are followed by bright orange berries. They like the same growing conditions as Hellebores. The plants die back to the ground shortly after flowering and reappear in the fall. Arums are also deer resistant.

Some summer blooming plants have interesting foliage and dried seed stalks that add interest to the winter garden landscape when left on the plant.

Eryngium yuccafolium 'Rattlesnake Master' has foliage similar to the Yucca as it's name indicates. The leaves are bluish green and can grow up to 3 feet long and 1 ½ inches wide.

Sedum 'Autumn joy' is another plant that has flowers that can be left on the plant throughout the winter as are Hydrangeas. The last flowers of the fall can be left to provide visual interest throughout the winter. Oakleaf hydrangea also has cinnamon colored bark that is revealed when the leaves fall.

Trees and Shrubs

Red and yellow twig Dogwoods will add color to the winter garden. Sumacs, while often thought of as weeds have bright red seeds that last into the winter. Japanese Kerria has bright green twigs and Russian Sage has whitish stems. River Birches and Weeping Willows are trees with interesting bark. We shouldn't forget the standard evergreens that always give us some green to remind us that even in the depths of winter, spring isn't far away.

Berry Plants

The American Cranberry Viburnum trilobum has red berries. This shrub grows 10 to 12 feet tall and has clusters of white flowers in the spring. The Northern Bayberry Myrica pensylvanica grows from 4 to 10 feet tall and has blue-gray berries. Winterberry Ilex verticillata is a great producer of berries that the birds can't resist.

Arrowwood Viburnum dentatum has clusters of dark blue berries while the Common Snowberry Symphoricarpus albus has white berries.

Cranberry Cotoneaster Cotoneaster apiculatus is a low growing ground cover that has delicate pink flowers in the spring and loads of red berries in the winter.

Most of these plants are important food sources for birds and small mammals.

Interesting Shapes

There are a couple of plants that add visual interest to our winter garden landscape. Weeping Mulberries and Crabapples have interesting shapes that stand out once their leaves have fallen.

The Corkscrew Willow Salix matsudana is a medium-sized, tree that will grow up to 30 feet in height. The main ornamental feature of this plant is the contorted and twisted branches and twigs that are most apparent when the leaves are absent in the winter. Branches arise from the trunk at severe angles and grow up almost parallel to the trunk before they curve back horizontally.

Harry Lauder's Walking Stick Corylus avellana is a shrub or small tree that grows to 10 feet in height. This is a plant that is truly grown for its appearance after the leaves have fallen. The name derives from Scottish comedian Harry Lauder who performed using a crooked branch as a cane. Its branches are delightfully contorted which adds a lot of interest. These plants are grafted onto root stock. Like many with grafted plants suckering from the rootstock can be a problem. These suckers need to be removed so that the plant does not revert to its rootstock's characteristics.

Ornamental Grasses

Most ornamental grasses continue to add interest as the winter goes on (and on and on!) They fade from their summer green to pale wheat colors and the seed stalks provide interest as they sway in the winter winds.

Northern Sea Oats Chasmanthium latifolium, is popular for its showy, drooping flowers and slender foliage that changes from green, to a rich copper, to chocolaty brown as we go into winter.

Maiden Grass Miscanthus sinensis, 'Gracillimus' Is an attractive grass that grows to six feet in height with burgundy colored flowers that fade to buff color in the winter. Giant Miscanthus Miscanthus floridulus is a very large grass, growing ten to twelve feet in height. The long leaves, similar to bamboo, turn tan in the winter and provide movement and gentle rustling sounds when the wind blows from the north.

Wildlife in the winter garden

Remember the small animals and birds in the winter garden. Most of us put out bird food for the birds. It's important to provide them with water also. A birdbath de-icer can help them keep their insulating feathers clean. A brush pile can provide cover for birds and small mammals. You might want to provide a shelter box for small birds. These are available commercially but you can easily build one with minimal woodworking skills. Click here for plans. We always have a real Christmas tree. After the holidays it's taken in the back where it serves as a shelter for the birds until spring. If you look down the hill, you can see the last 5-10 years trees in varying stages of decomposition.

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