As part of your spring planning – and planting – also include ideas for next winter’s landscape.
A few tips when planning a garden for the winter:
First, create an evergreen backdrop so that when deciduous shrubs and trees shed their leaves in the fall, your beds will still have “bones,” or structure, to provide screen, height and visual interest.
Next, reassess the importance of curb appeal. While street aesthetics matter, it’s not the only view: the person who sees the garden the most is you.
Consider where you spend your time. Do you work from a home office? Is there a window above the kitchen sink? Study the view and plan the interior garden. When selecting plants, evaluate how their berries, bark, and bare stems will improve your eyesight.
Some plants with the best winter interest are not very interesting in the summer. But tolerating the ho-hum redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba) during the growing season will reap bright red stems that shut down circulation over winter. So will the American beauty berry (Callicarpa americana), a bushy native to the southeastern United States whose brilliant purple berries hang down all winter — or until the birds eat them.
Winter holly (Ilex verticiallata), another North American native, sports a profusion of red berries that are a feast for the senses, as well as birds. Plant one male for every six to eight female plants to ensure they produce fruit.
Witch hazel and shrubs are beautiful in winter. The bare branches of the Aurora variety bear large yellow acorn-like flowers beginning in mid-winter, followed almost immediately by my favorite cultivar, Jelena, which seems to burst with red and orange blooms. Two others – Ruby Glow and Strawberries and Cream – live up to their names.
Heathers (Calluna vulgaris) are cold-hardy evergreens with flat, scale-like foliage that changes color as the weather cools. Wickwar’s flame transforms copper; Firefly evolves from chartreuse to orange through the seasons, landing a spectacular brick red hue in winter. Heathers (Erica carnea), also evergreen but with needled foliage, have bell-shaped flowers that bloom from winter to spring. Favorite varieties include springwood rose and furzey.
The white flowers of the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) usually open in late fall; The Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), available in white, pink, purple and almost black, begins its show in late winter.
Camellia (Camellia japonica), known as “the queen of winter flowers”, has an unfair reputation as a diva. Although susceptible to fungal diseases and scale insects, the late fall bloomer is easy to grow. The species includes varieties with white, pink, red, yellow and lavender flowers.
Its cousin, Camellia sasanqua, blooms pink or white from late fall and has fewer pest and disease problems. As with all plants, select varieties that will thrive in your climate; Hardiness zone information is usually included in catalog descriptions and on plant labels at the nursery.
Trees with eye-catching bark can also steal the show. That of the paperbark maple (Acer griceum) peels off in leaves to reveal bands of cinnamon-colored bark underneath. And paper birch (Betula papyrifera) offers four seasons of interest, with attractive yellow fall foliage, hanging spring catkins, and smooth bark that begins to peel when the tree is about three years old. River birch (Betula nigra) is a fast-growing, multi-stemmed tree whose bark also curls and peels as it ages.
Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia), darlings of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast Corridor from Virginia to the Carolinas, have been bred to withstand cooler climates in recent years. Natchez, a cold-tolerant cultivar with white flowers hybridized to resist powdery mildew, entertains winter with smooth, cow-patterned bark. And as the black cherry (Prunus serotina) ripens, its rind takes on a unique appearance of burnt potato chips.
However, plants are not the only eye candy in the winter garden. Consider wildlife. A hanging bird feeder seen from inside the house can have a calming effect on anyone. Place a bird feeder outside the windows of the children’s room and the children will experience stress relief without even realizing it.
And to feed this wildlife, save the cleaning for spring. The wispy seed heads of depleted perennials and the rustling, straw-like sprigs of abandoned ornamental grasses not only lend height and interest to what might otherwise be a flat, barren landscape, but they also have a goal.
Grasses such as bluestem, brook grass and sea oats, left standing until spring, help insulate the roots and provide shelter for hibernating wildlife and insects. The dry seed heads beautify flowerbeds and borders, especially when snow covers them, and they provide a source of food for hungry birds.
However, there are certain plants that gardeners should remove in the fall. Hosta, a favorite winter refuge of overwintering slugs, should be cut down when it wilts, as should the iris, which often harbors borer eggs. Other candidates for the seasonal log are perennials susceptible to downy mildew diseases, such as lemon balm, peony, and phlox, as well as any plants that showed signs of disease during the last growing season.
Plant early-flowering bulbs in the fall to take advantage of sunny winter spots that are too shady for summer blooms. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), Siberian squill (Scilla tubergeniana) and spring snowflake (Leucojum verum) thrive under bare trees in late winter. And winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) lays a yellow carpet over bare ground or dormant lawn waiting for the onset of spring.
Jessica Damiano writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. A master gardener and educator, she writes The Weekly Dirt newsletter and creates an annual wall calendar of daily gardening tips. Send her a note at [email protected] and find her at jessicadamiano.com and on Instagram @JesDamiano.