How To Create Winter Interest In The Garden

I grew up near Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Brandywine Valley. The painter, Andrew Wyeth, drew inspiration from this place, beautifully capturing the winter landscape in a moody mix of soft browns and grays. My growing years were painted in the same palette, enhanced by the crisp outline of bare branches against a snowy white sky. Nature sure knew how to create a lot of winter interest.

THE MAGIC OF WINTER INTEREST

Wyeth saw a particular beauty in the stark winter landscape. He focused mainly on landscapes, depicting trees and shrubs stripped of their leaves in a dramatic interplay of light and shadow. Not only did his paintings explore the plants’ bare-limbed forms, they also showcased striking new shades and patterns.

Farm Scene by Andrew Wyeth

In the garden, these are the same elements that create winter interest.

A winter garden

By selecting plants that exhibit light and shadow, or have interesting branch color or structure, you, too, can paint a dramatic winter landscape. Start by choosing plants with peeling bark, colorful branches or winter flowers, cones, berries and fruits. And don’t overlook the dried forms of many perennials, which can add movement and texture if left to overwinter in the garden.

Here are some of my favorite plants for creating winter interest in the garden. See if one (or a few) of these beauties doesn’t work for you.

PEELING BARK 

As Wyeth showed, trees are not just about foliage. Many species also have bark that peels, splits or sheds to reveal new surfaces and colors. In the winter garden, peeling bark can add interest by playing with light and shadow.

River Birch (Betula nigra) is unmatched when it comes to peeling bark. Smooth at first, once it matures, the tree sheds its bark in curling, cinnamon to blackish sheets.

Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)is a small deciduous tree with cinnamon-red bark that constantly peels in curls to reveal pinkish-brown inner bark. A unique feature of the tree is that the peels stay on the trunk rather than fall to the ground.

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is prized for its polished bark and vase-like shape that make it equally as interesting in winter as in summer. The thin gray bark exfoliates to reveal a smooth under bark ranging in tone from brown to grey. 

BRANCHING OUT 

While other plants sleep, shrubs with colorful branches shine. For the best display, plant species with same color branches in groups to create broad swaths of rich winter color.

Red Twig Dogwood, also known as Redosier dogwood, has fiery red stems and a loose, multi-branched growth habit. Exposure to summer sun brings out the best winter color.

Yellow Twig Dogwood is a cultivar of Red Twig Dogwood. It is a rapid-growing suckering shrub with greenish-yellow stems. 

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is spectacular in winter, especially if you leave its dried summer blooms attached. An added bonus is that the cinnamon-brown bark of mature plants also exfoliates.

WINTER INTEREST FRUITS AND BERRIES

Plants with fruits and berries not only provide food for hungry birds, but they also add splashes of vibrant color to the subdued winter landscape.

Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous holly native to eastern North America. It produces masses of spectacular red berries on bare winter branches that persist until spring.

Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) is an evergreen shrub with shiny leaves that produces large quantities of red or orange berries that remain on the bush for most of the winter.

Crabapples (Malus species) come in all shapes and sizes. Aside from dramatic branch structure, many cultivars produce fruits that persist through the cold winter months. 

WINTER FLOWERING SHRUBS AND TREES

What could be better than a plant that flowers in the winter? Surprisingly, there are quite a few species to choose from.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) produces fragrant, ribbon-like flowers from January through March. Colors range from yellow, to red and orange. The blossoms curl up on super cold days only to open again when temperatures rise. 

Winter Daphne (Daphne odora) is a small-sized broadleaf evergreen shrub with intensely fragrant reddish-purple flowers. It blooms in late January to March.

Camellias (Camellia sasanqua and japonica species) For vibrant winter color, almost nothing beats the showy flowers of the Camellia sasanquas and japonicas. There are literally thousands of cultivars to choose from displaying a wide range of colors and forms. Camellia sasanquas bloom from fall to early winter and Camellia japonicas bloom from January through March.

GETTING ORNAMENTAL WITH GRASSES

Ornamental grasses add texture, color and movement to the landscape. Moreover, they provide an especially interesting contrast with evergreen plants. In addition to creating winter interest, they also furnish food and shelter for wildlife.

Feather Reed Grass is an upright, clump-forming grass that is semi-evergreen, so it retains some of its color into the winter. Its white, red or yellow flowers change to a soft tan in the fall and persist through winter.

Little Bluestem Grass this little gem features upright clumps of slender green leaves tinged blue at the base that turn orangey-brown in the fall. Clusters of fluffy white seed heads follow the flowers and remain attractive well into winter.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plants with winter interest. For ideas for early-blooming bulbs, check out my post on 10 minor bulbs for major spring impact and add to your daffodil collection with one or more of these 13 different daffodil types. Or check out these hellebore species that will light up your winter garden from December through March. 

 

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