It’s easy to think of winter as a bleak, dead time when your garden is to be ignored. But winter can add a special beauty to the garden.
In landscaping, think beyond pretty flowers and impressive foliage. Think about using some shrubs and trees that have interesting shapes in fall and winter. I have a couple of miniature Japanese maples with quirky shapes that have visual interest, even when their delicate crimson leaves have fallen. I also love the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick; its contorted branches give it sculptural interest, especially in the winter. Both of these trees grow very slowly, so they won’t take over your garden and ruin your layout!
Although the winter winds and snows will eventually pummel them, hydrangeas can be breathtaking in the fall, when their blooms have dried out and they have turned brown or reddish.
Ornamental grasses, such as fountain grass, are nice to leave up in the winter, says Tina Gossner, of Durham. A master gardener and landscape designer, likes their color and shape, and that animals feed on them.
Larger trees may have interesting shapes off-season, too. Gossner planted a weeping birch next to her house for its graceful shape. Birdfeeders hang in the trees around her house, and, with the leaves down, the birds are easy to see. Under her apple tree is a great place to sit in any season; her favorite tree is accented by a stone bench and flagstone walkways.
Terraces, patios and walls — especially when made of natural materials — take on a sculptural look when the trees have shed their leaves and flowers are nowhere to be found. When dusted (or covered) with snow, they have yet another look.
Planting bushes that provide food for birds, such as the bright red winterberry, not only adds color; it helps native and transient (migrating) birds survive. Consult a garden center that doesn’t just sell plants they don’t grow. Look for a place with staff who know about sustainable gardening that helps maintain (or restore) the balance of nature.
Nancy DuBrule of Natureworks in Northford is one such person.
“The garden in winter can be a place of great beauty. As the leaves fall off of the deciduous trees, the evergreens become the star of the show. Pines, spruces, cedars, and hemlocks not only provide color in the garden, they offer shelter to birds and wildlife; pine cone seeds and holly berries are also an important food source for them.”
For visual impact, she suggests planting shrubs and trees that have colorful branches or interesting bark.
“There are dogwoods with orange twigs, and willows with orange stems; stewartia (a camellia tree) has beautiful peeling bark.”
DuBrule also suggests making containers of evergreens for cold weather decoration.
She suggests trying a native plant theme: combine berries (such as inkberry) with woodland ground covers such as wintergreen and partridgeberry, and add a few rocks and some moss. Put them on the patio or on the front porch, or as accent by that not-so-lovely garage door.
Personally, I think Christmas decorations—wreaths and such—are lovely left up until the first signs of spring. Okay, stash the multicolored lights and the inflatable snowmen…
Finally, a few wintery ideas from my friend Candace Kearney, a landscape designer at Winterberry Gardens in Southington:
“The silver blue needles and pyramidal form of the Colorado spruce provide height, color and contrast,” she says. “You can almost imagine yourself up in the Rocky Mountains. I especially like Baby Blue Eyes, a dwarf spruce that grows slowly.”
Another favorite of hers is the white birch.
“It offers a strong vertical anchor, an impressive slash of white in both the summer and winter landscape.”
She also favors the river birch (Betula Nigra), whose peeling bark offers great “texture.”
As she says, “winter can be a time of looking out on the frozen world as a bleak and cold place, or it can be a time of enjoying winter vistas from your windows, and bundling up to go walking in a winter wonderland.