How To Create Winter Interest In the Garden

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“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn’t show.”

~  Andrew Wyeth

I grew up near Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Brandywine Valley. The American painter, Andrew Wyeth, drew his inspiration from this place, beautifully capturing the unique winter landscape in a subdued mix of browns, whites, tans and grays. My winters were painted in the same monochromatic palette, made all the more rich by the stark outlines of bare shrubbery and gnarled tree trunks silhouetted against the white winter sky.

Andrew Wyeth/Winter Farm Scene

Andrew Wyeth/Winter Farm Scene

Wyeth was known to prefer winter and its interplay of light and shadow against black, gray and white forms. He saw a particular beauty in the stark winter landscape. He depicted trees, shrubs and grasses stripped of their summer foliage to expose fantastic sculptures and new shades and patterns. These same qualities apply to the winter garden.

winter scene

In the garden, you can create winter interest by selecting plants that take advantage of the stark contrast between dark and light while exhibiting physical qualities specific to the colder months. These characteristics may include exfoliating bark, colorful branches or forms, flowers, cones and berries and fruits. Some shrubs, when bared of their leaves, reveal visually arresting architectures while the dried-out forms of summer perennials (left standing in the garden) can add movement and texture to the landscape. It’s a natural, almost effortless beauty.

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.


Exfoliating Bark

These trees have interesting bark that peels, splits or sheds, to reveal new forms and colors as well as an interesting interplay of light and shadow.

birch bark

River Birch Bark: One of the best. It loses its bark in big, papery shreds to reveal a smooth, gray to cinnamon-brown wood underneath. The cultivar  ‘Heritage’ sheds to reveal salmon- or white colored bark.

Crape Myrtle: Smooth polished bark and a vase like shape are hallmarks of this spectacular ornamental that is equally as interesting in winter as it is in summer. White-flowered ‘Natchez’ develops spectacular cinnamon-brown, mottled exfoliating bark after about 5 years.

Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum): this small ornamental tree’s exfoliating cinnamon-red bark peels in large curls to reveal pinkish-brown inner bark. A unique feature of the tree is that the peels stay on the trunk rather than falling to the ground.


Unique branch color or form

When other shrubs sleep, these plants are at the peak of their color. Plant specimens en masse, to create broad swaths of rich color.

red dogwood

Redtwig Dogwood, also known as Redosier dogwood and Red willow (Cornus sericea): Fiery red stems and a loose growth habit characterize this stunning plant. Play up the color by creating large groupings. Exposure to summer sun brings out the best winter color.

Yellowtwig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’) is a dogwood cultivar with a spreading habit and outstanding bright yellow winter stems.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia): I love the way the brownish form of this graceful shrub drapes over the winter landscape, especially with the dried blossoms still attached. An added bonus is that the cinnamon-brown bark of mature plants also exfoliates.


Winter fruits and berries

In addition to providing food for hungry birds, these plants add splashes of vibrant color to the subdued winter landscape.


Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata): This deciduous holly native to eastern North America is known for its spectacular red berries that appear in profusion on bare winter branches and persist until spring.

Firethorn (Pyracantha): 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.

Viburnum dentatum: ‘Blue Muffin’ is a cultivar with bright blue berries that appear on bare branches as early as December.

Crabapple (Malus): Among the many beautiful cultivars available, I prefer the vase-shaped ‘Harvest Gold’ for its large, bright-yellow fruits that last well into the winter.


Winter flowering shrubs and trees

witch hazel

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana): I love all witch hazels and particularly Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese witch hazel, for its fragrant, large-sized yellow blooms and long bloom period (January through March).

Winter Daphne (Daphne odora): A broadleaf evergreen shrub with intensely fragrant reddish-purple flowers. Flowers bloom in late January to March.

Japanese Camellia: For vibrant winter color, almost nothing beats the showy flowers of the species bred specifically for cold weather, Camellia japonica. There are thousands of cultivars to choose from displaying a wide variety of flower colors and forms. Some varieties have blooms as large as 5 inches appearing atop glossy green foliage from January through March.


Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses add texture, color and movement to the landscape and can provide an especially interesting contrast when planted near evergreen plants. They also furnish food and shelter for birds.

feather reed grass

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

Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium): This little gem features upright clumps of slender green leaves tinged blue at the base that turn orangey-brown in 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 where it comes to plants with winter interest. For ideas for early-blooming bulbs, check out my earlier blog post on minor bulbs. Or visit Winterthur Gardens’ March Bank where tiny winter flowers are already poking their heads out of the ground.


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