The Garden In Winter

By Cindy Gilberg

Winter is a time for both looking at the year past and towards the new year. As the leaves and temperature drop, a whole new appearance to the landscape is revealed. Take advantage of this time to reflect on the garden in winter—is it visually exciting? Does it have color and interesting forms? Are there still great views? Many gardens are designed for the warmer seasons with flowers and foliage in mind. The essence of a great garden is one with year-round structure and interest.

Adding winter interest is as easy as including plants that have one or more of the following attributes: attractive dried foliage and seed heads, winter berries/fruit, appealing branching patterns, or interesting bark. Some of these features are desirable to overwintering birds that add even more interest, color and animation to the winter scene. In the fall, don’t be so tidy in the garden in the fall. Rather than cutting down all the grasses and perennials, just let them be. Coneflowers (Rudbeckia and Echinacea), asters, goldenrods, Iris, late-blooming blazingstars (Liatris) and grasses have seed heads that attract birds, that snow settles on, or that have intriguing structure. To attract as many birds as possible, use Missouri native plants since these creatures evolved with and depend upon these plants for food and shelter.

A few native plants are evergreen, a color often missed in winter months. American holly is the most obvious that comes to mind with its thick glossy green leaves that provide a great foil for its brilliant red berries. Be sure to plant one male holly amongst the female (berry-producing) plants to ensure that you have a good crop of red berries. Another evergreen native plant is our native cedar (Juniperus virginiana). It is extremely hardy and bears frosted blue berries that make a favorite snack for flocks of cedar waxwing birds. In warmer winters, native sweet bay Magnolia is another one with large, semi-evergreen leaves. The taller evergreen shrubs and trees provide much needed shelter in winter for birds and other small animals. Some low-growing perennials also remain evergreen. This includes Christmas fern, some short sedges (Carex eburnea, C. albicans) and alum root (Heuchera). Intersperse these evergreen native plants in the landscape to provide contrast and add green to the garden.

Berries are not only colorful but attract many birds that come to feast. Winterberry and deciduous holly, (Ilex verticillata and I. decidua) are a great example. After the leaves drop, bright showy red fruit becomes the obvious feature. Winterberry is a large shrub and deciduous holly is a small tree. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) has exquisite purplish berries that color up in fall and persist through December. Though not a favorite of birds, I have seen quite a few birds that eventually take advantage of this food source. Looking out my window in December I still see red berries on the flowering dogwood—perhaps the birds have yet to discover it. Dogwoods have great branching patterns and beautiful spring flowers, making them a good multi-season plant.

Limb-up small, multi-trunk trees to reveal interesting trunk and branch patterns and install an upward-facing light to appreciate these patterns after dark. Snow falling accumulates on branches, outlining and accentuating them in a way that only Nature can. One great small tree is vernal witch hazel (Hamemalis vernalis). It has great form but the most exciting aspect is that it blooms with fragrant yellow flowers in late January-February—a real treat after months of short days and cold temperatures.

So don’t think of winter as down-time in the garden—think about how to create fantastic views, new plants to add or a feature that will add intrigue to the scene. Curl up with a hot cup of tea, look out your window, watch the snow fall and see the birds come and go. Enjoy the fourth season—winter.

Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Professional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. You can contact Cindy at 314-630-1004 or email her at cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.