The garden in winter has an altogether different demeanor than in summer: It holds light, casts shadow, and hosts color and scent much differently. A winter garden sounds like a contradiction in terms, but if you plan well, winter might become a favorite garden season. “With a little forethought and preparation, the garden in winter can hold its own peaceful and lovely rewards,” says landscape horticulturist Warren Leach, co-owner of Tranquil Lake Nursery in Rehoboth, Massachusetts.
Comfortable access to your garden in winter will determine if and when you venture out and enjoy it. Make sure the places you like to get to — perhaps a favorite bench in a wooded corner — have suitable walking paths.
Then consider where to place plants to make the most of your regional conditions and your winter habits — both indoors and out. As when planning the summer garden, consider the views of the winter garden you’ll see from indoors. “What you see from the spaces you use most — doorways, kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom — are opportunities for pulling your attention to the winter garden,” Leach says. Lorene Edwards Forkner, garden designer and editor of Pacific Horticulture journal, concurs. “Perhaps you take your cup of morning coffee or tea to the same window every morning to look out,” she says. “Make the most of this.”
When choosing plants for winter interest, consider evergreen foliage; strong or interesting branching and overall plant form; bark texture or color; berries, cones, or seed heads that hold up through a good part of the winter; and winter bloom and fragrance.
Colors for the Northwest
In places where overcast skies and wet conditions persist for days at a time, plant anything with a touch of gold color to brighten the darkness, recommends Lorene Edwards Forkner, editor of Pacific Horticulture. In the Northwest, parts of which are in Zones 8 and 9, the coldest months are relatively brief, but the lack of light and overwhelming rainfall make winter hard on plants and gardeners alike. “Because of our overcast weather, we have to imitate light — thus the gold,” she says. “Shots of red, orange, or white are also good.”
Forkner suggests these plants for winter interest:
• Cultivars of the Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) that have gold highlights (try ‘Confucius’ or ‘Fernspray Gold’)
• Elaeagnus pungens ‘Maculata,’ a broadleaved evergreen with large yellow centers on the leaves
• Heathers, such as Calluna vulgaris ‘Firefly’ (golden) or ‘Wickwar Flame’ (red)
• Crabapple (Malus spp.) trees that hold their fruit, including ‘Butterball,’ which has golden fruit
• Shrub dogwoods (Cornus spp.) with winter branches in vibrant red and gold tones, including ‘Cardinal’ or ‘Midwinter Fire’
• Hellebores (Helleborus spp.), which bloom reliably beginning in late December
• Minor bulbs, such as winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), and snowflakes (Leucojum spp.)
• Winter-blooming shrubs: witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.); cultivars of Osmanthus and Sarcococca; Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’
The West in Winter
In the Mountain West, Central West, and Southwest (where Zones stretch from 1 to 9) bright, dry, and windy conditions are common despite heavy snowfalls throughout the season. “What works in winter throughout the West are good seed heads, plants with sculptural shape, and evergreen foliage,” says Dan Johnson, curator of native plants at the Denver Botanic Gardens. “Plants that don’t go mushy with constant freeze-thaw cycles are the best choices.” Because of the winter sun’s low angle, Johnson also suggests positioning plants so you can see them backlit by the morning or evening sunlight.
Johnson suggests the following plants for winter interest:
• Cultivars of Echinacea and Rudbeckia make great seed heads, attract winter feeding birds, and contrast with the dun color of most ornamental grasses.
• Conifers such as Alaskan weeping cedar (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’) and the weeping giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’) offer great winter foliage and shape.
• Native types of Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) and Ephedra
• For branching winter silhouettes: crabapples, sycamores (Platanus spp.), and hawthorns, such as Crataegus x lavalleei ‘Carrierei’
• Ornamental grasses that withstand snow and wind: cultivars of Miscanthus sinensis and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
• Western natives such as Agave parryi, Agave havardiana, Agave neomexicana, and Yucca filamentosa ‘Variegata’ or ‘Bright Edge’
• Hellebores and witch hazel grow best in protected locations that receive more winter moisture.
Woodland Shapes: Northeast and Midwest
In the Northeast (predominantly Zones 2 through 7) heavy wet snows that stay on the ground for a long time are likely to obliterate any subtlety in late-season gardens. “Woody plants are key to the winter garden in the Northeast,” Massachusetts landscape horticulturist Warren Leach says. “Go for big, bold, and strong in shape and color,” he says. He’s also a fan of gold-colored foliage for that extra jolt of visual warmth in the cold months.
Leach suggests the following plants for winter interest:
• Pines that change color in winter, such as Pinus sylvestris ‘Gold Coin,’ especially when paired with a reliable winter bloomer like Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ (a red-flowered form of witch hazel)
• Shrubby dogwoods, such as Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ (with yellow stems in winter) or Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Flame’ (orange, yellow, and red stems)
• Shrub willows, such as Salix alba ‘Vitellina’ (yellow stems) or S. alba ‘Chermesina’ (yellow-red stems)
• The silver-gray evergreen Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’
• The Japanese evergreen known as Hiba arborvitae (Thujopsis dolabrata) has textured bark, fan-shaped branching, and interesting coloring.
• For winter berries: hollies (Ilex spp.) and red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’)
• For winter blooms: witch hazel, hellebores, and snowdrops