WHEN I FIRST PLANTED my small red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) in spring a few years ago, I wasn’t convinced the pale-green stems would turn red in winter as promised. A few weeks before Christmas, though, the shrub seemed to turn scarlet overnight. Now when a light snow covers portions of the dogwood stems, it looks as if I am growing a candy cane bush. Add the red cardinals that choose its stems as a place to perch and my winter yard blooms with color.
I chose the dogwood after seeing several on display during winter in a public arboretum. Public parks and gardens are often designed to retain interest in winter, and home gardeners can learn from their caretakers. The New York Botanical Garden’s 3.5-acre Native Plant Garden, for example, opened this spring and is designed to look attractive throughout the seasons.
“The most important thing a person can do to create interesting gardens for winter is to choose plants that feature either evergreen foliage, interesting bark or longlasting fruit,” says Kristin Schleiter, the New York Botanical Garden’s associate vice president for outdoor gardens and senior curator. “Situate these plants in such a way that they will relate to each other when all the perennials, which may surround them, are dormant for the winter.”
Berry in Mind
When berries are desired in the winter garden, native hollies, Ilex spp., are at the top of almost everyone’s winter interest list, whether a region receives a mere dusting of snow and a token night of freezing temperatures or is blanketed with snow and ice for three months. Julie Marcus, senior horticulturist with the Wildflower Center, recommends two natives for their attractive berries: the evergreen Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and the possumhaw (Ilex decidua).
Dawn Gerlica, a horticulturist with the 3,600-acre Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio, adds winterberry (Ilex verticillata), which she planted near bird feeders at her own home to provide winter food. Gerlica appreciates “the contrast between the graybrown stems and the red berries.” For its hard, grey-white fruit she recommends Northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica).
Garden designers at the Native Plant Garden in New York City made sure to include plants that produced berries that create visual interest in winter. Clusters of winterberry fruit and the small red to orange fruit of green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis) – a thicket tree – instantly draw the eye on a monotone day when clouds, earth and sky seem one, according to Schleiter.
Here’s the juice on berries: If you like wildlife, it is better to plant native berry bushes that attract the species of birds found in your area. The bird/berry relationship is an important, established one.
A Touch of Whimsy
Plants are main characters in any garden of course. But especially in winter, they need a supporting cast to keep a garden interesting. From whimsical to sophisticated, non-plant items can help.
- Consider folk art or think funky. Split rubber tire plant containers are not everyone’s idea of sophisticated garden art, neither are bottle “trees,” created with colored glass bottles adorning tree-like stands. But have some fun. Use old boots, wicker baskets attached to rusty bicycles or vintage children’s wagons as unusual containers.
- Include sculptures. In areas with harsh winters, the most fragile outdoor pieces are covered. But some sculptures of metal or marble seem to relish an ice storm that leaves them encased in crystal. One gardener i know wraps a long red scarf around the neck of her marble garden goddess.
- Experiment with technology. Aluminyze is a process that takes a favorite photo, such as a sunrise, and infuses it into the body of a sheet of lightweight, recyclable aluminum. the photo is waterproof and scratch-, tear- and fade-resistant. Gardeners can display a sunrise even on cloudy days.
- Be happy with hardscapes. Stone walls, small bridges, pathways and grottos made with bricks or pavers of all sizes and shapes anchor the more stark days of winter.
- Watch water. Fountains and ponds with aeration or running water provide sound and movement and are sources of water for animals in winter.
- Lighten up. Conifers are beautiful in moonlight but also when effectively bathed with artificial light. Bare limbs and tree trunks of deciduous trees become dramatic when spotlighted. Path lighting is not only functional on shorter winter days but intriguing, leading the way for a walker.
- Fan the flames. Fire pits and glass-enclosed outdoor fireplaces evoke soul-searching thoughts on winter days. in truly cold environments, some gardeners even build ice sculptures from several blocks of ice and light a small fire inside. the structure cracks and slowly melts in amazing beauty, and the winter garden is alive with fire and ice.
Leaves Of Grass
Don’t overlook the hazier shade of winter. Without the bright pizzazz of berries, even those grasses buffeted and bruised by cold winds show winter elegance with fuzzy tufts and amber color.
“Many garden designers incorporate grasses into their designs thinking ahead toward winter,” says Julie Marcus. “Grasses provide form and texture to the garden in any season, but especially in winter when gardens lack other showier elements such as blooms.”
Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) “lies low most of the summer and pops up in August and September in the Midwest, lasting long into the winter,” says Gerlica. Marcus votes for big muhly (Muhlenbergia lindheimeri), with silver seedheads that shine at twilight and are “about the size of pampas grass but a better native alternative.”
According to TreeFolks’ program manager Carly Blankenship, during the program’s first year TreeFolks replanted 68,000 loblolly pines and mixed hardwoods on 180 acres within 54 parcels, with help from Texas Conservation Corps’Americorps members and 250 community tree planters. “We are on track to plant more than 2 million trees within five years,” Blankenship says.
The majestic architecture of some trees creates stunning winter silhouettes. Joe Marcus, the Wildflower Center’s collections manager, points to mature deciduous cedar elms (Ulmus crassifolia) and post oaks (Quercus stellata) in the Center’s Mollie Steves Zachry Texas Arboretum for their “stately form against the winter sky.”
A tree’s bark is its face – wizened with age, smooth with promise or peeling in sacrificial layers. Textures of bark shake up an otherwise docile view in winter. Joe Marcus cites the semi-evergreen Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) for its gray to white bark that peels in rectangular flakes, showing pink to brown to dark gray underneath. The exfoliating bark of the evergreen Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) also gets his vote for a tree of winter interest.
The site of New York’s Native Plant Garden was chosen for its existing advantages, including its old guard oaks. Mature native trees gave the area its power and strength, while the garden’s huge exposed bedrock knolls provide height variations and additional authoritative texture. Both elements become more important in winter when pretty blooms and greenery are only memories. The garden also consists of a central pool with water flowing over stone weirs and sustainable hard walkways.
“When the plants are down, the hardscapes are more visible, the lines are more prominent,” says Schleiter. The lesson is a good one for home gardeners who may wish to add small rocks or hefty boulders, which become dominant focal points in winter, when plants are not at their showiest.
Jill Sell is a freelance writer based in Ohio and an avid gardener.