As winter winds down, gardeners collectively look for signs of life, whether from the green sprouts of fall-planted bulbs or the return of foliage as deciduous trees leaf out. But our gardens could retain interest year-round.
When doing your spring planning — and planting — include ideas for next winter’s landscape too.
Some tips when planning a garden for winter interest:
First, create an evergreen backdrop so that when deciduous shrubs and trees lose their leaves in autumn, your beds will still have “bones,” or structure, to provide screening, height and visual interest.
Next, re-evaluate the importance of curb appeal. Although the aesthetic from the street matters, it’s not the only view: The person who sees the garden most is you.
Consider where you spend your time. Do you work from a home office? Is there a window above the kitchen sink? Study the vista and plan the garden from indoors. When selecting plants, evaluate how their berries, bark and bare stems will enhance your view.
Some plants with the best winter interest aren’t much to look at during summer. But tolerating the ho-hum redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba) during the growing season will reap bright red stems that stop traffic over winter. So, too, will American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), a bushy Southeast U.S. native whose bright purple berries hang on all winter _ or until the birds eat them.
Winterberry holly (Ilex verticiallata), another North American native, sports a profusion of red berries that are a feast for the senses, as well as the birds. Plant one male for every six to eight female plants to ensure they produce fruit.
Witch hazel trees and shrubs are stunning in winter. The bare branches of the Aurora variety hold large, tassel-like yellow flowers beginning in mid-winter, followed almost immediately by my favorite cultivar, Jelena, which seems to burst aflame with red and orange blooms. Two others — Ruby glow, and strawberries and cream — live up to their names.
Heathers (Calluna vulgaris) are cold-hardy evergreens with flat, scale-like foliage that changes color as the weather cools. Wickwar flame turns copper; firefly evolves from chartreuse to orange as the seasons progress, landing at a dramatic brick-red hue in winter. Heaths (Erica carnea), also evergreen but with needled foliage, have bell-shaped flowers that bloom from winter into spring. Favorite varieties include springwood pink and furzey.
The white blossoms of Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) typically open in late autumn; Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), available in white, pink, purple and near-black, starts its show as winter winds down.
Camellia (Camellia japonica), known as “the queen of winter flowers,” has an unfair reputation as a diva. Although susceptible to fungal diseases and scale insects, the late-autumn bloomer is easy to grow. The species includes varieties with white, pink, red, yellow and lavender blooms.
Its cousin, Camellia sasanqua, blooms in pink or white starting in late fall, and has fewer pest and disease concerns. As with all plants, select varieties that will thrive in your climate; hardiness zone information is typically included in catalog descriptions and on plant tags at the nursery.
Trees with eye-catching bark can steal the show, too. That of paperbark maple (Acer griceum) peels in sheets to reveal swaths of cinnamon-toned bark beneath. And the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) provides four seasons of interest, with beautiful yellow fall foliage, dangling spring catkins and smooth bark that begins to peel when the tree is about 3 years old. River birch (Betula nigra) is a fast-growing, multi-stemmed tree with bark that also curls and peels as it ages.
Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia), the darlings of the mid-Atlantic and southeast corridor from Virginia through the Carolinas, have been bred to withstand cooler climates in recent years. Natchez, a cold-hardy, white-flowered cultivar hybridized to resist powdery mildew, entertains over winter with smooth, cow-patterned bark. And as black cherry (Prunus serotina) matures, its bark takes on a unique burnt-potato-chip appearance.
Plants aren’t the only eye candy in the winter garden, however. Consider wildlife. A hanging birdfeeder viewed from inside the home can have a calming effect on everyone. Place a birdfeeder outside children’s bedroom windows and the kids will benefit from stress relief without even realizing it.
And to nurture that wildlife, save cleanup for spring. The wispy seed heads of spent perennials and the rustling, straw-like blades of surrendered ornamental grasses not only lend height and interest to what might otherwise be a flat and barren landscape, but they also serve a purpose.
Grasses like little bluestem, fountain grass and sea oats, left standing until spring, help insulate roots and provide shelter for wildlife and hibernating insects. Dry seed heads lend beauty to beds and borders, especially when snow catches on them, and they provide a food source for hungry birds.
However, there are some plants that gardeners should clear away in fall. Hosta, a favorite winter hideaway for overwintering slugs, should be cut down when it fades, as should iris, which often harbors borer eggs. Other candidates for the seasonal chopping block are perennials that are susceptible to mildew diseases, such as bee balm, peony and phlox, plus any plants that showed signs of disease during the past growing season.
Plant early-blooming bulbs in fall to take advantage of sunny winter spots that are too shady for flowers in summer. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), Siberian squill (Scilla tubergeniana) and spring snowflake (Leucojum verum) thrive under bare trees at the end of winter. And winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) unleashes a yellow carpet over bare soil or dormant lawn as you await the beginning of spring.