The Pleasures of a Winter Garden

We have our first snowfall here at the west coast – perhaps the only one this winter – and our winter garden is looking ethereal. The soft fluffy flakes are piling up on the bamboo outside my window, bending some of the canes almost to the ground. Tiny chickadees flit back and forth, mining the branches for hidden bugs.

winter garden birds

The snow has hidden the golden grasses around the pond. The only colours are the green of the firs and the bamboo leaves and the browns of dead leaves still visible on the archway.
In the grey winter days of November and December, our gardens may lack vivid colour. However, if you have paid attention to the ‘bones’ of your landscaping, the winter months are the time when silhouettes of bushes and trees, dried seed heads or vividly coloured winter berries can lend interest to your ‘winter garden’.

“Of winter’s lifeless world each tree now seems a perfect part; Yet each one holds summer’s secret deep down within its heart. ~Charles G. Stater

Your garden will come alive in this bleak season if you’ve paid attention to shapes, forms and textures as you made your plant selections.

Plan the Garden’s Backbone

Form the backbone of your garden with woody plants that have beautiful bark, evergreen foliage or interesting architectural structure. Outline pathways with evergreen hedges of box or yew. Add tall conifers like pencil pines or Irish juniper for vertical drama.   Add interesting architectural shapes with arches and decorative gates.

winter garden

Evergreens come into their own in winter when there is no competition from green deciduous leaves and bright flowering plants. In the winter garden, the golden new growth of a Golden Hinoki cypress reveals itself. Plant several varieties of juniper and add colours ranging from a rosy purple to silvery blue. These seem even more colourful next to white snow. The bright red/purple leaves of the Oregon grape will also light up a winter landscape.

Add Linear Interest


wire fence in winter
A simple wire mesh fence forms a beautiful pattern.

Many gardeners choose evergreens to add colour and texture all year long.  But if you choose deciduous plantings to complement your landscape, the patterns of their bare branches will enhance the beauty of your garden once their leaves have fallen. One of the best examples is the corkscrew hazel, also called Harry Lauder’s walking stick. This Medusa head of contorted branches and stems grows up to ten feet.

Don’t Forget Texture and Colour

Trees and shrubs that reveal interestingly textured and colourful bark once the leaves have fallen add more interest to the garden in winter. The peeling cinnamon skin of the paperbark maple adds both texture and colour. Red osier dogwood shrubs with their bright red shoots can bring a burst of crimson in shrubbery borders. The birch bark cherry sports bronze-red bark with horizontal slashes of greyish tan.

winter color in the garden
Berries add bright colour in the winter to any garden.

Shrubs and trees with ornamental seedpods and colourful berries in the garden a little extra zing. Wisteria pods, large and flat, hang down from the vines when the plant is grown over a pergola. Trees with interesting seedpods include the sweet gum, which produces a spiky ball. The Japanese pagoda tree produces a long slender pod resembling a string of beads that will remain on the plant well into winter.

Hoar frost covers the berries in this winter garden.

These seeds are winter food for goldfinches, sparrows and other birds. Chipmunks, red squirrels and grey squirrels also enjoy the fruits and seeds of these trees. Consult your local nursery or agriculture branch to determine which trees will thrive in your area.

Leave Those Seed Heads

Ornamental perennials add beautiful colour in summer. They can add interesting focal points in winter as well as food for birds. To showcase interesting seedpods, plant en masse, as a border or in containers strategically positioned in highly visible places.
Once poppies have bloomed, leave some of the seed capsules on the plants. Their round heads with serrated haloes are held high all winter by the tough stalks. Lunaria or silver dollar is a popular plant, grown for its seed heads that form a flat pod about the size and shape of a coin. The semi transparent covering encloses small flat brown seeds. Keep some of the seed heads on the plant in fall and winter, unless you gather them for dried arrangements.

seed heads in winter gardens
Wild senna, native to North America, is part of the legume family. It has showy spires of yellow flowers in summer. In winter the long seedpods change from deep gold to black, remaining on the plant.
Rudbeckia is a tall perennial with attractive foliage and masses of flowers held on the tips of the stems. Birds love the seeds, so keep some of the seed heads intact. The dark brown of its dried winter foliage, both stems and flowers, make an effective contrast if planted just in front of light coloured grasses like panicum and miscanthus.

Winter–interest Perennials

Did you know some perennials bloom in the late fall or early spring, sharing their beauty even when snow is still hanging around?

Find a place for cold season flowering perennials like hardy cyclamen, hellebores, snowdrops, and yellow or purple winter blooming crocus. These bloom in either late fall or in late winter, pushing up through brown earth or patches of snow.

Green hellebores will thrive over winters in milder climates, and will bloom in late winter.

Choose cyclamen or hellebore for containers and their blooms will liven your home’s front entrance. Chrysanthemums are another good choice for containers. Bright golds, bronzes and reds of their blossoms will liven up any entryway.

Heucheras, with evergreen foliage in shades of red, purple, orange, bronze or green, can add both colour and texture in the understory of your garden throughout the year. It’s just as attractive in summer, with its panicles of tiny bell-shaped flowers on tall stems rising above the colourful foliage.

Go For Ornamental Grasses

Tough, upright ornamental grasses can poke through winter snows and give your garden lots of visual interest. Their tall flower spikes are full of seeds that attract cardinals, juncos, and other over-wintering birds. Perennial ornamental grasses also add texture and motion to the garden in all seasons. They are becoming more popular in landscaping, since many of them are tolerant of dry sites, infertile soil and partial shade.

Indian grass forms an upright clump up to 4 feet tall, with yellow-brown flowers in late summer. In fall, the flowers turn deep orange to purple, and will retain colour throughout the winter. Northern sea oats grows about 3 feet tall, and has showy flat green dangling seed heads that turn bronze in fall and can last all winter.

Silver feather miscanthus is an upright, clump-forming grass that grows to a height of 6 to 8 feet. Large, silvery white flowers are produced in late summer, rising high above the foliage. In the fall,‘Silberfeder’ has tan foliage and beige plumes that will last all winter. Cut back the dead foliage in early spring before new growth begins.

Add Colour With Fruits and Berries

Another way to add colour to the winter landscape is to plant shrubs and trees that sport berries. Not only do these add colour, they attract winter birds, which further enliven the garden.

Cotoneaster brightens up walls and hedges with its bunches of red or orange berries, while wintergreen covers the bare brown earth with its evergreen leaves and small red berries. If left on the tree, the small purplish fruits of crabapples can last throughout the winter, feeding birds and adding even more cheery colour to the yard.

Elderberries have versatile garden uses, either as foundation shrubs or as eye-catching specimens in a mixed border. The plants produce umbrella-shaped clusters of small white flowers that form clusters of purplish-black berries. Use them in juices, jellies, or jams, or leave the berries for the birds to enjoy.

Holly is one of the most versatile plants, with shiny deep green leaves and berries with colours ranging from yellow to orange, red and even black. Over 400 species abound, many of them evergreen, ranging from shrubs to trees over 100 feet tall. It’s worth knowing that only the female trees (yes, there are both male and female hollies) will produce berries. If your tree has berries, it’s a female, and a male holly must be nearby.

Beauty berries add fboth color and food for birds throughout the winter in your garden.

Both the Chinese and American beautyberry have long, arching branches and yellow-green fall foliage. Clusters of glossy, iridescent-purple or indigo fruit form in the leaf axils, and will last throughout fall and winter.

Don’t give up on enjoying your gardens during the winter months. There are many plants that will add colour, charm and dimension to your winter garden.

Images thanks to Pixabay.

About the Author

Nicki is a dedicated gardener, a creative artist and a published author. Passionate about what she does, her gardening articles, books and paintings reveal her love of nature and the western Canadian scene. She loves sharing her container garden success with others to inspire their creativity.

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