winter gardening

The Winter Garden: Planning for Year Round Pleasure

The Pleasures of a Winter Garden


winter garden

We have our first snowfall here at the west coast today – perhaps the only one this winter – and our winter garden is looking ethereal. The soft fluffy flakes are piling up on the bamboo outside my window, bending some of the canes almost to the ground. Tiny chickadees flit back and forth, mining the branches for hidden bugs. The snow has hidden the golden grasses around the pond. The only colours are the green of the firs and the bamboo leaves and the browns of dead leaves still visible on the archway.

In the grey winter days of November and December, our gardens may lack vivid colour. However, if you have paid attention to the ‘bones’ of your landscaping, the winter months are the time when silhouettes of bushes and trees, dried seed heads or vividly coloured winter berries can lend interest to your ‘winter garden’.

The garden will come alive in this bleak season if you’ve paid attention to shapes, forms and textures as you made your plant selections.

Plan the Garden’s Backbone with Trees and Shrubs

Form the backbone of your winter garden with woody plants that have beautiful bark, evergreen foliage or interesting architectural structure. Outline pathways with evergreen hedges of box or yew. Add tall conifers like pencil pines or Irish juniper for vertical drama.  Arches and decorative gates add interesting architectural shapes even in winter.

winter garden

Corkscrew branches of Harry Lauders walking stick

Evergreens with colourful foliage throughout the year come into their own in winter, when there is no competition from green deciduous leaves and bright flowering plants. In the winter garden, the golden new growth of the Golden Hinoki cypress reveals itself. Plant several varieties of juniper and add colours ranging from a rosy purple to silvery blue. These seem even more colourful next to white snow. The bright red/purple leaves of the Oregon grape will also light up the winter landscape.

Many gardeners choose evergreens to add colour and texture all year long, but if you deliberately choose deciduous plantings to complement your landscape in all seasons, the patterns of their bare branches enhance the beauty of your garden once their leaves have fallen. One of the best examples is the corkscrew hazel, also called Harry Lauder’s walking stick. This Medusa head of contorted branches and stems grows up to ten feet.

winter garden

The brilliant colours of a birch bark cherry.

Trees and shrubs that reveal interestingly textured and colourful bark once the leaves have fallen add more interest to the garden in winter. The peeling cinnamon skin of the paperbark maple adds both texture and colour. Red osier dogwood shrubs with their bright red shoots can bring a burst of red in shrubbery borders. The birch bark cherry, sports bronze-red bark with horizontal slashes of greyish tan.

Shrubs and trees with ornamental seedpods can also give your winter garden a little extra zing. Wisteria pods, large and flat, hang down from the vines when the plant is grown over a pergola. Trees with interesting seedpods include the sweet gum, which produces a spiky ball. The Japanese pagoda tree produces a long slender pod resembling a string of beads that will remain on the plant well into winter.

These seeds are winter food for goldfinches, sparrows and other birds. Chipmunks, red squirrels and grey squirrels also enjoy the fruits and seeds of these trees. Consult your local nursery or agriculture branch to determine which trees will thrive in your area.

Seed heads for winter gardens

Ornamental perennials add beautiful colour in summer, and a few of them can add interesting focal points in winter as well. To showcase interesting seedpods, plant en masse, as a border or in containers strategically positioned in highly visible places.

Once poppies have bloomed, leave some of the seed capsules on the plants. Their round heads with serrated haloes are held high all winter by the tough stalks. winter gardensLunaria or silver dollar is a popular plant, grown for its seed heads that form a flat pod about the size and shape of a coin. The semi transparent covering encloses small flat brown seeds. The seed heads can remain on the plant in fall and winter unless you choose them for dried arrangements.

Wild senna, native to North America, is part of the legume family. It has showy spires of yellow flowers in summer. In winter the long seedpods change from deep gold to black, remaining on the plant.

Rudbeckia is a tall perennial with attractive foliage and masses of flowers held on the tips of the stems. Birds love the seeds, so keep some of the seed heads intact. The dark brown of its dried winter foliage, both stems and flowers, make an effective contrast if planted just in front of light coloured grasses like panicum and miscanthus.

Winter–interest perennials

winter garden

Hellebore blooming in winter

You may want to include winter flowering perennials, like hardy cyclamen with bright mauve blossoms or hellebores, snowdrops and yellow or purple winter blooming crocus. These will bloom in either late fall, with winter foliage, or in late winter, pushing up through brown earth or patches of snow. Choose cyclamen or hellebore for containers and their blooms will liven your home’s front entrance. Chrysanthemums are another good choice for containers. Bright golds, bronzes and reds of their blossoms will liven up any entryway.

Heucheras, with evergreen foliage in shades of red, purple, orange, bronze or green, can add both colour and texture in the understory of your garden throughout the year. It’s just as attractive in summer, with its panicles of tiny bell-shaped flowers on tall stems rising above the colourful foliage.

Ornamental grasses in the winter garden

Tough, upright ornamental grasses can poke through winter snows and give your garden lots of visual interest. Their tall flower spikes are full of seeds that attract cardinals, juncos, and other over-wintering birds. Perennial ornamental grasses also add texture and motion to the garden in all seasons. They are becoming more popular in landscaping, since many of them are tolerant of dry sites, infertile soil and partial shade.

winter garden

Ornamental grasses and seed heads add texture and colour to a winter garden

Indian grass forms an upright clump up to 4 feet tall, with yellow-brown flowers in late summer. In fall, the flowers turn deep orange to purple, and will retain colour throughout the winter. Northern sea oats grows about 3 feet tall, and has showy flat green dangling seed heads that turn bronze in fall and can last all winter.

Silver feather miscanthus is an upright, clump-forming grass that grows to a height of 6 to 8 feet. Large, silvery white flowers are produced in late summer, rising high above the foliage. In the fall,‘Silberfeder’ has tan foliage and beige plumes that will last all winter. In early spring, cut back the dead foliage before new growth begins.

Add colour with fruits and berries

Another way to add colour to the winter landscape is to plant shrubs and trees that sport berries. Not only do these add colour, they attract winter birds, which further enliven the garden.

Cotoneaster brightens up walls and hedges with its bunches of red or orange berries while wintergreen can cover the bare brown earth with its evergreen leaves and small red berries. If left on the tree, the small purplish fruits of crabapples can last throughout the winter, feeding birds and adding even more cheery colour to the yard.winter garden

Elderberries have versatile garden uses, either as foundation shrubs or as eye-catching specimens in a mixed border. The plants produce umbrella-shaped clusters of small white flowers that form clusters of purplish-black berries. Use them in juices, jellies, or jams, or leave the berries for the birds to enjoy!

Holly is one of the most versatile plants, with shiny deep green leaves and berries with colours ranging from yellow to orange, red and even black. Over 400 species abound, many of them evergreen, and range from shrubs to trees over 100 feet tall. It’s worth knowing that only the female trees (yes, there are both male and female hollies) will produce berries. If your tree has berries, it’s a female, and a male holly must be nearby.

Both the Chinese and American beautyberry have long, arching branches and yellow-green fall foliage. Clusters of glossy, iridescent-purple or indigo fruit form in the leaf axils, and will last throughout fall and winter.

Don’t give up on enjoying your gardens during the winter months. There are many plants that will add colour, charm and dimension to your winter garden.


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