Living in the northeast has many perks, but year-round gardening is not one. Face it. It’s a cold reality. Most of us stare at bleak winter landscapes for five months of the year. But this is no reason to throw up our arms in despair. By making some simple landscape adjustments, you can have a dazzling winter wonderland that is both beautiful and less work than summer gardens. Here are some ideas for creating a captivating winter landscape.
- Plant flowering shrubs and trees with attractive bark. Deciduous red and yellow twig Dogwoods have striking bark that glows against snow. ‘Artic Fire’ Dogwood is a particularly showy cultivar with stems that are orangey-red at the base and yellow at the tip. To keep stems a vibrant color, prune the oldest ones back in late winter. Stems older than three years lose their brilliance. Peeling (exfoliating) bark can be another focal point. Birch trees are prized for this feature. For those with smaller spaces, there are dwarf birches under 12’ like ‘Little King’. Paperbark Maples are also stunning and top out around 20’. Flowering shrubs with peeling bark include Ninebarks (Physocarpus), Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas), Oakleaf Hydrangea and Climbing Hydrangea.
- Evergreen flowering shrubs and conifers play an important role in winter landscapes. Rhododendrons, Mountain Laurel (Kalmia) and Japanese Andromeda (Pieris) are popular spring flowering shrubs. I recently discovered Pieris ‘Silver Flame’, a green and white variegated specimen with stunning red-pink new growth. Semi-evergreen flowering shrubs are Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ and Abelia. Popular deer-resistant evergreens are Boxwood and Inkberry. And the world of conifers is extraordinary. There is a vast range of plant sizes and shapes as well as needle colors to choose from. A few of my favorites are Birds Nest Spruce, False Cypress (Chamaecypairs), Russian Cypress (Microbiota); dwarf Mugo Pine and any blue Spruce (Picea). But be careful when selecting a blue Spruce as mature sizes range from 2’ – 3’ tall (‘Glauca Globosa’) to ‘Compacta’ Colorado Blue (4’ – 5’ tall) to the mighty Colorado Blue (30’ – 60’ tall). Size DOES matter.
- Deciduous trees and shrubs with unique branching habits make great specimens. One of the best known is Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (sometimes called contorted filbert). Redbuds (Cercis) and dwarf Japanese maples are also striking.
- Perennials left uncut in fall are pretty, plus many serve as bird feeders. Astilbe, Coneflower, Black-Eyed Susan, Sedum, Sea Holly, Butterfly Weed and Globe Thistle are excellent picks. Ornamental grasses are well known stars of the winter landscape, especially the taller Fountain grasses. To keep grasses from collapsing under snow and ice, provide support with a stake plus twine wrapped around the grass’s girth, about 1/3 of the way from the ground. This way the grass maintains a natural weeping habit.
- Garden statuary, benches, trellises, birdhouses, mirrors and obelisks dance on the winter stage. I store pottery containers in the shed to protect them from cracking but everything else I leave out for interest. I particularly love an inexpensive bird bath I spray painted cobalt blue. It is striking surrounded by snow.
- Gazing balls and painted bowling balls are glamorous landscape ornaments. I tuck large, medium and small balls about the gardens. Of course after a heavy snowstorm, they disappear for a while, but soon their colorful surfaces reemerge. Cheaper versions of gazing balls are marked down Christmas ornaments. The large ones designed to be hung from porches are ideal. Last year I picked up a tube of bright blue ornaments in a variety of shapes. These were dazzling hanging from the branches of my miniature crabapple tree. You can also make your own rustic 2’ to 3’ diameter balls by using grape or bittersweet vine. They look like huge ‘dust bunnies’ in the winter playroom. Let your imagination run wild!
- Fences, arbors and pergolas contribute to winter interest. I’m a big fan of cedar and teak structures. If you grow Clematis on arbors and trellis, use those in Group III. These flower on new wood. Translation: you can cut the vine to within 6” to 8” of the ground every fall when cleaning up perennial beds. This way you don’t have scraggly, dead-looking stems detracting from your winter wonderland. Some Group III Clematis are: ‘Betty Corning’ (light blue); ‘Dutchess of Albany’ (pink with darker pink bars); ‘Ernest Markham’ (red); ‘Etoile Violette’ (violet-blue); ‘Ramona’ (soft lavender-blue); ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ (rosy-pink); ‘Hagley Hybrid’ (soft pink); ‘Jackmanii’ (purple) and ‘Niobe’(red); ‘Red Cardinal’ (red); ‘Polish Spirit’ (purple) and Sweet Autumn Clematis (white).
- Dried flowers on spring, summer and fall flowering shrubs and trees are intriguing in winter. Hydrangeas are probably the number one plant used for this purpose. My only advice is to remove spent flowers before winter on young Hydrangeas trees (those in the paniculata group). Allow these to mature a few years so their branches are strong enough to support the weight of snow or ice-covered flowers without tearing or breaking wood.
- Fruiting trees and shrubs add colorful berries to a white world. Berries brighten the landscape and are nice goodies for birds. Red, yellow and orange-berried Hollies are bold players in snowy settings. Remember, you need both male and female Hollies to have berries. A few other colorful berrying shrubs for winter interest include Viburnum (red, blue or black berries); Chokeberry (Aronia, red berries); Winterberry (a deciduous Holly, red berries); Cotoneaster (red berries) and Beautyberry (Callicarpa, purple berries).
- Okay, call me silly but I love the smiling gnome face on the oak tree in my backyard. When I sit in my sun room and look out on a cold winter day, he always smiles back. I cannot say that for everyone in my house. There are many hanging gnome expressions to choose from as well as other cutesy figures. I also love my little stone owls perched around the property. Stone Age Creations has many fun pieces. Check them out at www.stoneagecreations.com. And dare I even mention garden gnomes and pink flamingos? Personally, I put my foot down on bent-over gardener silhouettes with their derrière in the air.
These are just a few simple ideas for adding sparkle to our snowy winter palettes. Let’s make Old Man Winter green with envy.
Kerry Ann Mendez is a garden designer, speaker, teacher and writer and the owner of Perennially Yours in Ballston Spa. Visit her website at www.pyours.com.