How to Create Winter Interest in Your Garden

In the heat of summer, I start to lose my love of the garden. It’s too hot to do the work, and I’m mostly focused on keeping the perennials from dying as we suffer through drought-like conditions. Sometimes, the effort of watering takes up all the time I have for gardening.

My love of the garden comes back in the fall as temperatures cool, and I begin to fill in those empty spots. That’s when I start to lament its lack of color and worry that the garden will be especially boring in the winter.

Now, it’s too cold to play in the garden, so I fantasize about curling up with some hot tea and plant books. Determined that this year, I’ll research my plants and order them. I promise myself that I won’t, I will not go to the garden center on the first nice spring day and buy up a bunch of plants that are colorful and beautiful, just because they are catching my eye. I will have a plan. I will!

I’m thinking about what I love to look at all year long and when winter is most bleak, what I’d like to see in my garden as I stare out the windows—beautiful tree bark, reds and blues, waving grasses and evergreens top my list. Read on for a short list of favorites that you can try in your garden.

Have You Checked Out Exfoliating Bark?

Maybe you haven’t given much thought to exfoliating bark, but I love looking at bark on my slow dog walks. It’s filled with colors that change as the light changes. Why not add a specimen to your yard?

birch tree

The native river birch adds winter interest with its exfoliating bark.

River Birch (Betula nigra)

The River birch is both native and spectacular with its large seeds that attract birds and beneficial insects and its exfoliating bark that ranges from reddish-brown to pinkish tan. It’s a large tree that grows easily in most conditions, except for high alkaline soils.

Three-flowered maple (A. triflorum)   

This small maple gives a showy display in fall!

This is another great maple that is slow growing and works well in our landscapes. Plus, with its low-lying branches, you can maintain it as a shrub. The emerald green leaves really shine in the fall, creating a dazzling display from brilliant yellow orange to flame-orange, with hints of apricot, scarlet, purple and gold. Three-flowered maple is one of the few trees to dependably develop good fall color in shade (although it will be more subdued than in full sun).

Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconiodes)

flower

The seven-son flower is a well-kept secret.

This is one of those well-kept secrets. It’s a gorgeous flowering tree (or shrub) that’s part of the Honeysuckle family and related to forsythia and viburnum. Say no more, right? It might be hard to find, but you can bet you’d be the only house on your block with one. It will delight you all season long with creamy white flowers in the early summer that fruit in the fall, and its final performance is the exfoliating bark in the winter.

Kalm St. Johnswort (Hypericum kalmianum)

This gorgeous yellow blooming shrub is native to our area but is rare and listed as endangered. It loves full sun, sandy soil, and can tolerate wet conditions. It blooms in the summer and then you get the interesting exfoliating bark in the winter.

flower

Enjoy the gorgeous blooms and the exfoliating bark!

Red Berries and Twigs for Splashes of Color

Love a splash of red in your landscape? So does Gannon, one of our landscape designers. Here are his favorite winter interest plants that fill the red bill.

Winterberry shrub (ilex verticilata)

winterberry

Can you imagine anything prettier in winter than these gorgeous red berries?

The winterberry shrub grows from 6-9 feet and provides bright red berries that are a great food source for birds. Keep in mind, you need both male and female plants to get the fruit. The summer foliage is glossy dark green turning yellow in the fall. It grows well in sun to partial shade and in moist, well-drained soil, so might be a perfect specimen for your rain garden.

Red twig dogwood (cornus sericea)

dogwood

Love the splash of red the dogwood delivers to our gray winter days!

Red twig dogwood isn’t native, but its red stems are irresistible. The dogwood flowers in the spring, and its vibrant red stems are most apparent on young stems, which is why many gardeners will prune the oldest stems of this shrub in early spring. It grows to about 6-9 feet and the butterflies and birds love its flowers.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) 

sumac

The sumac’s fuzzy red fruit make it a unique wintry sight.

Staghorn sumac is often used in mass plantings, for naturalizing, or on steep slopes. My favorite place to see them is along the lake as you walk on the trail at the south end of Northwestern University. Its open habit and hairy stems resemble horns on a male deer, giving it its name. It is one of the last plants to leaf out in the spring with bright green leaves that change to an attractive yellow, orange, and scarlet in fall. Among the most recognizable characteristics are large, upright clusters of fuzzy red fruits that appear above the branches in late summer on female plants, which are highly appealing to birds.

Don’t Forget about Native Grasses to Add Movement

Grasses next to evergreens are especially beautiful, and what I like most about grasses in my winter garden is that they move with the wind, adding more interest. And, as importantly, they provide birds with a welcoming home for both food and shelter.

Blue adds its own excitement to the winter palate, and the blue stem family offers short and tall native grass options.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

bluestem grass

Bring blue into your landscape with little or big bluestem.

Little bluestem is a purplish-bronzy ornamental grass blooming from August through February. It’s low maintenance, tolerating all kinds of soil conditions. Besides the color it provides, its beauty gets magnified with its upright stems throughout winter when some other grasses tend to flatten out.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) sometimes reaches up to 8 feet including the seedheads. In early spring, stems and leaves emerge with a darker blue-green color that lighten to a brighter green with red tinges during the growing season. In fall, it’s known for the beautiful bronze to reddish leaf display that gently fades to tannish colored winter stems, which like the little bluestem, typically remain upright to retain a vertical element throughout winter.

Big bluestem works well in the rear of a border planting or as a backdrop for other, shorter natives. It also works well in mass plantings or as a visual screen when planted in groups.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) 

switchgrass

Beautiful, native and tough switchgrass.

Switchgrass is another very tall native grass used for both its ornamental appeal and its tough adaptability to a wide range of soil conditions. It can spread and take over, so it’s probably best in mass plantings or as a solid border to create a visual screen. The seedheads offer a lot of late season interest as they create a cloud-like effect across the top of the grasses.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

Indian grass

This tall, native grass offers gorgeous color in the winter.

Indian grass is another tall native that offers a wonderful display of fall color each year which it typically carries into the colder months creating winter interest. Seedheads tend to persist into winter as well, adding some additional texture and interest to the tall vertical stems. During the growing season, its foliage has some of the blue-green coloring of bluestem but not quite as distinctive. This plant works well mixed into other native plant arrangements and tends to behave better than switchgrass, spreading much more slowly.

Adding Native Evergreens or Deciduous Trees to Your Landscape

Looking for an evergreen or tree to add to your landscape? Here’s a list of some popular evergreens and trees in our area.

White Pine (Pinus strobus) 

The white pine adds beauty and a buffer to your landscape.

With its evergreen needles, white pine makes an excellent visual buffer or screen as well as a wonderful shade tree at maturity. It does well in well drained soils and full sun and tolerates less than optimal conditions. On the downside, it has a very low tolerance for salt spray from roadways in winter.

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

bald cypress

A favorite urban tree with big color!

This is often a favorite urban tree, usually planted as a specimen or massing. It tolerates harsh urban conditions and puts on a beautiful, rusty-orange fall display each year. It loses its needles in the winter and grows new ones in the spring. Its adaptability, fast growth and beautiful fall display make it a great choice.

Shamrock inkberry (Ilex glabra)

shamrock inkberry

Our little evergreen hedge is a great alternative to boxwoods.

Shamrock inkberries aren’t native, but perform well in our area, especially if you are looking for a border specimen or hedge and are tired of boxwoods. They are a broadleaf evergreen shrub in the holly family and easy to grow and do well under most conditions. If you want those sweet berries, however, you need a male and a female. The shamrock variety is slightly smaller at 3-4 feet and doesn’t sucker as much as other inkberry plants.

I hope this short list inspires you to add a new plant or two to your garden. If your garden lacks inspiration this winter, don’t worry, you can change all that in time for next year! Winter is always a great time to research and think about your garden design. It’s also a perfect time to hash out your ideas with a landscape designer, so you can be ready to plant in the spring and create a garden that inspires you all season long.

 

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