Gardening with Winter in Mind

The Winter Garden: maximizing the garden’s interest from November to April.

By Tanya Crowell


Picture in your mind a pale blue winter sky. In front of it see a red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), denuded of leaves, its glorious cherry red stems open to view. Next to it there are several clumpy sedum seedheads and closer to ground the shiny veneer of black scallop bugleweed (Ajuga reptans “Black Scallop”). All of this color and beauty at a time we are used to thinking of as the sleeping season when we have put the garden away. Yet here it is putting on another kind of show. One that can seem more subdued at first, but on closer observation can become most absorbing. And when the snow comes the effect is truly magical.

When we consider that, in Canada, winter can begin in late November and last until April it makes sense to create beds and borders with winter in mind. A few considerations can easily turn a three season garden into a four season wonder. Thought given to the winter landscape does not detract in any way from the beauty of the garden in spring or summer.

There are 4 categories or layers to consider when building a bed with winter in mind. First are conifers. It is often recommended that conifers be used to create structure in at least 30 % of a garden. They provide a living backdrop that is enduring in any bed. When we especially consider winter, we definitely want at least 30% conifers and perhaps as much as 50-60%. It is even acceptable to build a bed that is 100% conifers. This can be very beautiful but will be more consistent throughout the year and most gardeners enjoy a changing show. A full conifer bed is only recommended where space allows for other beds elsewhere.

Now, if all this talk of conifers has you floating in a sea of monochrome green, guess again. In today’s gardening world, conifers are available in a range of sizes, colors, texture and shape. If your garden is small such as in a suburban front yard, or a back courtyard, you may wish to explore using dwarf conifers. Be aware, however, that the use of the term dwarf really means smaller than the usual size and that some dwarf conifers can eventually get quite large. When you buy a dwarf conifer, the size given on the tag gives the size it will be in 10 years. Keep in mind that some conifers can grow twice or triple that size in 20 or 30 years. Thus it is important to consider your space carefully when planting conifers and to give them back of the border positioning in most cases, especially if you prefer to plant them and then ignore them in terms of care. Early and regular pruning helps control eventual size. Judicious use of annuals in the growing season may be needed initially to fill the space.

Your garden will hold the most interest for the eye if you plant a variety of shapes and textures. New spring growth will bring more color and some species hold their color all year. “Glauca Globosa “Colorado spruce ( Picea pungens “Glauca Globosa”) is a steely blue globe that is very attractive near upright “Confucious” Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtuse “Confucious”) that has an undulating texture in an array of lemon yellow new growth to deeper gold on older foliage.  Dwarf balsam fir (Abies balsamea “Nana”) is a slow growing dark green cultivar that never gets tall. It can be used as a foreground plant and its green color provides stability to allow the more colorful varieties to shine. Another option is dwarf Thread leaf cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera “Filifera Nana”). It is medium green and will tolerate hot summers better than dwarf Balsam fir. For a bit more shade tolerance, consider Canadian hemlock. Two lovely dwarf cultivars are “Moon Frost” and “Frosty” (Tsuga canadensis “Moon Frost”, T. canadensis “Frosty”). One important rule of thumb with conifers is to place them with special regard as to exposure to winter sun and wind and choose cultivars that can withstand these conditions to prevent scorching. A winter garden of conifers loses its attractiveness when shrubs are wrapped in protectant material!

The second layer of a beautiful winter garden includes deciduous flowering trees and shrubs. Their flowers and foliage may excite us in spring but it is their interesting bark, brilliant berries and abstract structure that we are after in winter. One of the most fascinating examples is the Paperbark maple ( Acer griseum). Its exfoliating bark ranges in color from cinnamon reddish brown to fuschia pink. It is absolutely stupendous against winter snow. River birch (Betula nigra) is another excellent choice. Although both of these are smaller as trees go, they are often too large for some gardens. For a smaller setting, consider shrubs. Here the dogwoods reign supreme for their bright red winter bark. Great choices include Red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), Flowering dogwood (Cornus kousa) and Redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba). Some come in variegated forms that add even more interest in summer. Another great choice is Witch hazel ( Hamamelis spp.), not only for its lovely architecture but especially for its very late autumn or very early spring flowers. The cultivar “Arnold Promise” (Hamamelis x intermedia “Arnold Promise”) is a most welcome sight in spring when it produces wispy catkin-like 4 petalled clumpy flowers in a standout gold color with an intoxicating astringent fragrance to draw you outside. All of this happens long before the forsythia even thinks about blooming. Hydrangeas (Hydrangea spp.) add interest by their ability to hold flower heads over the winter. Another beauty is Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Its light colored bark is very ornamental.

For berries think winterberry (Ilex verticillata), or High bush cranberry ( Viburnum trilobum). Another great choice for gorgeous red–orange hips is Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa) .

The third ;layer of a winter garden must include broadleaf evergreens because they provide a different texture than conifers and still hold their leaves through winter, often with wonderful color changes to add even more interest. Two of the best are the Wintercreepers, Emerald Gaiety (Euonymous fortunei “Emerald Gaiety”) which is white variegated and Emerald and Gold (Euonymous fortunei “Emerald and Gold”) which is variegated in yellow and green, both turn pink in cold weather and lower light. Their mix of yellow, pink, white and green can bring much life to a winter bed. Other great choices are Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium) and Blue princess holly (Ilex x meserveae “Blue Princess”). The holly has both evergreen leaves and berries but be sure to plant the male “Blue Prince” (Ilex meserveae “Blue Prince”) nearby if you want berries.

The fourth layer includes stiff stalked perennials, grasses and evergreen groundcovers. Perennials that remain upright through rough winter weather with interesting seedheads such as coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) will create a catch-all for snow that adds magic to a winter garden. Grasses that hold their structure and remain a burnished golden color through winter such as Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) or Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) work well. They also hold snow in interesting patterns, sometimes splaying in a beautiful fashion under the weight of heavier snow. Another great choice for this effect are the sedums such as Autumn Joy (Hylotelephium telephium). Other sedums work well as ground covers such as Angelina Sedum (Sedum rupestre “Angelina”). Heartleaf  bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia) is a wonderful ground cover choice as its evergreen leaves turn a burgundy purple in winter and look excellent peeping out from under a layer of fresh snow.  For a green contrast try Lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.) or Hellebores (Helleborus spp.). All of these will look good in winter and reward you with beautiful flowers in spring and summer.

In summary, winter can be a time of great delight in the garden whether outside or simply viewing it all from a window. Winter is a time when we can really enjoy our gardens because the work has stopped and we are not so busy. Planning and thought can lead to a garden that looks wonderful in winter whether against the neutral brown and grey backdrops of the season or in the glory of snow. The right choices can create bursts of color to excite the eye and heart until it is time to gather up the spade and secateurs for another season. Just remember to consider these elements: conifers, interesting bark, brilliant berries, broadleaf evergreens with some variegation, stiff stemmed perennials, grasses and colorful groundcover. You can even add in a winter resilient garden ornament and bench to the scene. Let your imagination take over and your creativity soar to assemble a winter garden that will delight you in every season.

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