Reflections on the Winter Landscape
Piet Oudolf, a world-renowned innovative garden designer, believes “The real test of a garden is how it looks in winter, when the bare bones of the design are revealed.” In other words, a garden should be designed to be interesting throughout the year and not just in the spring and summer seasons. Furthermore, Oudolf asserts, “The garden in winter is an emotional experience. You think in terms of decay and disappearing and coming back. You feel the life cycle of nature.” His words remind us that life is indeed a cycle and all seasons of the garden are beautiful – or should be.
WHERE TO BEGIN
Without the brilliant color and fragrance of flowers or leafy foliage to excite the senses, we must look for other ways to bring life and energy to the normally dormant winter landscape. Begin by critically assessing your views from indoors. As you look out your windows, does your eye linger on any one specific plant or landscape feature? Think about what makes the view interesting and imagine what you could change to make it more appealing.
In determining changes to make, it may be helpful to break the dormant season into thirds. Once you think of winter in terms of mini-seasons, it’s easier to decide which elements to incorporate into the landscape to make it more vibrant and alive.
- In late fall/early winter, some deciduous trees and shrubs hang on to their foliage or fruits well into November or even early December, providing plenty of color and interest. A few examples include oakleaf hydrangea, fothergilla, some viburnum species, and a number of oak tree species. Also, the seed pods and seed heads of many perennials add texture throughout the entire winter season.
- In mid-winter, conifers and broadleaf evergreens provide mass and substance to the landscape, transforming it from drab and sparse to rich and full. Deciduous trees and shrubs with fissured or colorful bark, unique growth habits, and persistent berries also provide plenty of mid-winter interest.
- In late winter/early spring, hardy winter-blooming plants such as witch hazel, hellebores, and snowdrops add unexpected color and drama to the winter garden.
COLORFUL CONIFERS AND OTHER EVERGREEN SPECIES
Conifers and other evergreen trees and shrubs are the mainstays of the winter landscape. They bridge the seasons, providing reliable color and structure in the spring and summer garden and a foil for the vivid colors of autumn leaves. A native holly, juniper, or magnolia can be a very effective centerpiece in the winter landscape. Their persistent foliage and thick branching catch and hold snow, creating infinite visual interest. Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) publications 426-605 and 426-607 (listed below under sources) offer information on the selection of conifers and broad-leaved evergreens.
When choosing a conifer or broad-leaved evergreen, keep in mind the various shades of green and how they will harmonize with other plantings throughout all four seasons. For example, the needles of blue spruce (Picea pungens) and other blue-leaved evergreens can make a strong visual impact when paired with purple or burgundy-leaved plants. The fine, lacy, golden thread-like foliage of golden false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera species) contrasts well with darker green conifers and lightens the composition. Gray-green junipers offer a cooling, soothing presence in the landscape. With careful consideration of the shades of green, one can create a rich tapestry of color using conifers and broad-leaved evergreens only. If you’re color challenged, like many of us, Nancy Ondra’s award-winning (American Horticulture Society) book, Foliage, is an excellent resource for learning more about the role of foliage, texture, and color in the landscape.
In addition to conifers, many other woody and herbaceous species add color and texture to the winter landscape. Examples include magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora and cultivars), boxwood (Buxus species), inkberry holly (Ilex glabra), camellia, skimmia (Skimmia japonica), sweet box (Sarcococca species), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), rhododendron, and Japanese Pieris (Pieris japonica). Some fern species, hellebores, heuchera, and yucca are also good perennial evergreen choices.
Plants with variegated or spotted foliage may be used singly as an accent plant or in groups to add interest in the winter landscape. Too much variegated foliage, however, can be distracting, so don’t overdo it. English holly (Ilex aquifolium) cultivar ‘Argenteo Marginata’ and English boxwood (Buxus semperverens) cultivar ‘variegata’ are two examples of variegated plants that have dark green leaves edged in white. Gold Dust Aucuba (Aucuba japonica) ‘variegata’ has deep glossy green leaves richly splattered with gold.
COLOR SELECTIONS FOR THE WINTER LANDSCAPE
While evergreen species are often considered the mainstay of the winter garden, there are many other options for enlivening the landscape. Suzy Bales, author of The Garden in Winter, wrote: “Green in winter is to the garden what meat and potatoes are to the body: comfort food. Brighter colors—blue, red, and gold—are much more exciting, like sugary desserts, but best used in small amounts.” With that advice in mind, a vast number of plants may be used to provide a pop of color here and there in the winter landscape.
Red is the easiest color to incorporate into the winter landscape, according to VCE Publication 426-228, Patriotic Gardens: Red, White, and Blue in Fall and Winter Gardens. As the name of the publication indicates, the emphasis is on patriotic gardens. However, the plant choices listed include a number that apply to any winter landscape. For example:
- Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) sports clusters of red berries that persist into winter.
- Scarlet Oak and Red Oak (Quercus coccinea and Quercus rubra) foliage holds its red color well in cold weather before eventually turning brown.
- Red twig/red osier dogwood (Cornus alba and C. sericea) have bright red twigs that make a dazzling display, particularly in snow, but also when positioned in front of dark green conifers or other evergreens. The brightest colors are on the new growth.
- Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is one of many shrubs with red fruits that may persist into the winter months.
- Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’) has reddish ribbon-like flowers that bloom in late winter – a time when flowers of any kind are in short supply.
- Fothergilla, which is related to witch hazel, holds its orange, gold, and red leaves into December. After the leaves finally drop, the zig-zag branches provide winter interest.
WINTER BERRIES AND FRUITS
A wide range of berry- and fruit-bearing woody plants thrive in Virginia, providing many options for adding color to the winter landscape. For example:
- Red: Evergreen (Ilex species) and deciduous (Ilex verticillata) hollies; some crab apple (Malus) cultivars, such as ‘Donald Wyman’; green hawthorn (Crataegus), such as ‘Winter King’; American cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum tribolum), Skimmia (Skimmia japonica); and even staghorn sumac (Rhus). Also, rose bushes are often overlooked as a source of color in the winter landscape. Rose hips from Rugosa roses such as ‘Jens Munk’ or Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ and shrub roses such as ‘Bonica’ or ‘Carefree Beauty’ provide welcome red color as well as a source of food for wildlife.
- Orange or red-orange: Pyracantha species and orange-berried winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ‘Aurantiaca’). Also, our native persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) has orange fruit that persists into the winter months.
- Yellow or gold: Yellow-berried American holly, such as Ilex opaca ‘Aurea’; yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea species), such as ‘Arctic Sun’; flowering crab apple, such as Malus ‘Harvest Gold’; or deciduous holly (such as Ilex Verticillata ‘Winter Gold’).
- Blue: Junipers (including eastern redcedar) and some viburnum species, such as arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) and black-haw (Viburnum prunifolium).
- Purple: American beautyberry shrub (Callicarpa americana). The vibrant purple berries persist into winter, provided birds don’t eat them first.
- Black or blue-black: Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), inkberry holly (Ilex glabra), and fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus). All three produce attractive black or blue-black berries and fruits that serve as a food source for birds.
When selecting plants such as these for winter color, bear in mind that some species, such as winterberries and certain viburnums, are dioecious, meaning the male and female blossoms occur on separate plants. So, for berry or fruit production, it’s important to select both a female specimen and a compatible male pollinator.
THE NATURAL BEAUTY OF BARK
Bark is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the landscape. During most of the year, it does not get the attention and respect it deserves. Instead, flowers and foliage receive all the glory and accolades. But once the flowers fade and the leaves fall away, bark finally gets its turn in the spotlight. Some deciduous trees and shrubs have richly colored, fissured, striated, peeling, or curling bark. However, we generally don’t pay much attention to it until winter. Only then do we become aware of its texture, variety, and beautiful shades of cinnamon, brown, cream, or gray — all best viewed against a backdrop of snow. A few examples of woody plants with interesting or colorful bark include the following:
- River Birch (Betula nigra) bark exfoliates into papery sheets and plates, exposing various shades of brown, cinnamon, and gray on the underlying inner bark. This 40’ to 70’ species is perhaps the most heat tolerant of the native species. Don’t confuse this species with the paperbark birch (Betula papyrifera), which has the whitest bark of all the native U.S. birches, according to Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. While a beautiful tree, the paperbark birch prefers the cooler temperatures of zones 2 to 6, whereas most of Virginia is in warmer USDA Zone 7.
- Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) bark sheds strips of cinnamon-color bark all winter. The older bark of this 20’ to 25’ native of China exfoliates, revealing beautiful cinnamon or reddish brown coloration. The large curls remain on the tree rather than falling to the ground.
- Coral-bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’) bark provides multi-season interest. The bright coral-red stems and branches aren’t all that noticeable until after the simple palmate leaves drop in autumn. The colorful bark of this small 20’ to 25’ tall Japanese maple shows to best advantage when displayed against a backdrop of hollies or other dark green evergreens.
- Lacebark Elm (Ulmus Parvifolia) bark has mottled patterns of gray, green, orange, and brown. The leaves of this 40’ to 50’ tall and wide Asian native tree are smaller than those of other elm species. Lacebark elm has good resistance to Dutch elm disease.
- Lacebark Pine (Pinus bungeana) bark on this slow-growing Chinese conifer peels, revealing a mottled patchwork pattern of white, silver, olive green and purple. The species grows about 40’ to 50’ tall on average, although more compact forms are available, and sports bright green needles in groups of three.
- Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) branches and stems peel, revealing a cinnamon color and interesting texture on this native species.
- Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) bark is reddish brown and exfoliates, providing interesting winter color and texture. This small, slow-growing non-native tree from Japan grows about 12’ to 40’ tall and 8’ to 25’ wide.
- Sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis) bark is light grayish brown, flaking off in large, irregular, thin pieces, exposing mottled grayish to cream-colored inner bark. This fast-growing native tree is best given plenty of space because it will eventually grow 75’ to 100’ tall and wide.
REVEALING SHAPES AND FORMS – THE BARE BONES OF THE GARDEN
Sadly, most gardening references focus on the spring, summer and fall attributes of woody plants but seldom provide much information on their winter attributes. Some woody plants are often not fully appreciated for their beauty until they drop their leaves, revealing striking branches, angles, and sculptural shapes that can make a significant impact in the landscape:
- Weeping forms. Any weeping form of tree or shrub can make a dramatic focal point or accent in the winter landscape. The cascading branches and foliage add delightful grace notes and a pleasing contrast to more upright species. Although very few trees have a naturally weeping form, mutations of both deciduous and evergreen trees have resulted in a number of weeping selections. A few examples include: Redbud (Cercis), flowering cherry (Prunus species), Japanese maple (Acer dissectum species), umbrella elm (Ulmus), and willow (Salix).
- Vertical forms. Incorporating a strong geometric shape to serve as a vertical accent can transform a landscape from ordinary to extraordinary, particularly if most plantings in the landscape are low-growing. Just remember to keep proportions in mind when combining vertical with horizontal forms so that the two planes are in harmony with one another. Examples of narrow, columnar, or pyramidal forms include: Arborvitae, (Thuja ‘Emerald Green’), juniper (Juniperus virginiana ‘Emerald Sentinel’), boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Dee Runk’), or holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’).
- Topiaries – Pruning shrubs or trees into topiary forms is another way to add winter interest. Exotic shapes and forms, such as the topiary fox and hounds found at Baltimore’s Ladew Botanical Garden, may well be beyond the average gardener’s skill set. However, it is possible to build on the topiary idea by simply pruning a boxwood into a perfect sphere and showcasing it in a square container. Arborvitae species are commonly shaped into a spiral form.
- Espalier – This ancient method of training woody plants into a linear shape against a flat surface is an especially effective way to create interesting textures in the winter landscape. Many forms of espalier exist, but two of the easiest to master are the horizontal cordon and the candelabra. Although commonly used on fruit trees, other plants that respond well to this treatment include firethorn (Pyracantha species), rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), some crabapple (Malus) species, camellias, and some smaller magnolia species.
OTHER LANDSCAPE ELEMENTS THAT SURPRISE AND DELIGHT
Texture is an all-important element in the winter garden. Some plants that provide interesting branching, seed heads, or shapes in the landscape include the following:
- Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Coryllus Avellana Contorta), with its contorted branching, is particularly eye catching in the winter landscape. Dressed in its green summer clothing, this is just an ordinary looking shrub with no particularly distinctive features. But, once it sheds its leaves in fall, this shrub takes on a completely different personality. Its unique branching truly makes this shrub one of the more interesting plants in the landscape. Plant it near a walkway where its contorted habit can be viewed up close.
- Corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana), also known as curly willow, is perhaps best known for attention-getting wavy branches that are often cut and used for dramatic elements in floral arrangements. This fast-growing tree grows 20’ to 30’ tall with a symmetrical, rounded crown. Attractive year round, it is hardy in USDA zones 4 – 8. Although the branches are susceptible to breakage and the tree is not particularly long-lived, the corkscrew willow’s charming and unique branching may make it worthwhile growing anyway.
- Dried grasses, such as ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Dallas Blues’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora), or ‘Little Bluestem’ (Schizachyrium scoparium) sway in the wind and add movement to the landscape. For best results, select grass species that won’t flop over in winter. Also, avoid planting invasive species.
- Dried seed heads and seed pods of many plants, including tall sedum species, Echinacea, Clematis, and Rudbeckia, glimmer when coated in ice. Dried hydrangea flower heads catch the snow and rattle when stirred by a breeze. Dried milkweed (Asclepias) seedpods reveal attractive shimmery linings when split open, contrasting beautifully with the dark brown seeds.
- Silvery plants add interest to the winter landscape by reflecting the light. A few examples include common sage (Salvia officinalis), lamb’s ear (Stachys bysantina), Russian sage (Perovskia), and even the whitish-gray spent foliage of catmint (Nepeta). Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’) is an interesting conifer species with green needles that curl up exposing the silvery underside.
BLOSSOMS THAT BRAVE THE COLD
It may be hard to believe, but a few plants are capable of pushing the wintry envelope and blooming despite the cold weather. While some bloom sporadically throughout the season, particularly on milder days, a number of plants start showing color in February and March, as winter edges closer to spring.
- Winter-blooming shrubs include witch hazel (Hamamelis), which sports red, copper, or yellow blossoms, depending on the species or cultivar. On mild winter days, winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) offers pops of bright yellow blossoms that both startle and delight the casual passerby. Often grown as a short hedge, winter jasmine’s arching branches look particularly fetching when allowed to cascade over a stone wall. Other winter-blooming shrubs include Japanese Pieris (Pieris japonica), fragrant winter daphne (Daphne odora), pussy willow (Salix discolor), paperbush (Edgeworthia), and some cold-hardy camellia species.
- A few perennials that bloom in winter include Lenten Roses (Helleborus orientalis) or Christmas roses (Helleborus niger), named for the time of year they bloom. They are not roses at all, but members of the Helleborus genus. Depending on the species, they start blooming from mid- to late winter and continue to bloom through spring. A related species, bear’s foot hellebore (H. foetidus), has clusters of chartreuse flowers edged in dark red held high over darker green foliage. All three Helleborus species, plus countless hybrids, have handsome leathery dark green foliage that sprouts in early spring, holds up well in summer heat, and persists through the winter months.
- Many bulb species are also capable of braving the elements. Toward the end of winter – February and March – or even during a mild January, many bulbs provide color, including white snowdrops (Galanthus), bright yellow winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), or brilliant blue Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). Of course, nothing is more enchanting than the sight of a bright gold or purple crocus pushing up through a blanket of snow and ice.
THE ROLE OF HARDSCAPE FEATURES IN THE WINTER GARDEN
It’s perfectly normal to focus entirely on live plants as a way to invigorate the winter landscape. However, one of the easiest and most satisfying ways to make the winter landscape interesting is to install a hardscape feature. An interesting gate or archway makes a pleasing accent in the garden, prompting visitors to enter and explore. A well-placed bench invites one to linger and admire the view. Stone walls, fences, curving walkways, terraces, and other permanent features serve as accents, focal points, backdrops or dividers. A graceful trellis, tuteur, or arbor adds a vertical element and can look particularly attractive when coated in a blanket of snow. Permanent urns (weather-proof, of course), sculptures, kinetic art, birdbaths, birdhouses, and other ornamental objects can also add dramatic or whimsical elements. With the strategic placement of a simple fountain, sculpture, urn, or small bench, the smallest patio garden can be just as fascinating as the largest estate garden.
DON’T FORGET THE VALUE OF WILDLIFE IN THE LANDSCAPE
Anything that adds motion to the landscape enlivens it and makes it interesting, no matter the season. This applies to wildlife as much as it does to plant materials. Plants with seeds, cones, or berries will ultimately attract birds and other wildlife species. The flashes of color as birds dart from one food source to another, together with the furtive movements of other creatures, make the landscape come alive on so many levels. This is perhaps the best of all reasons to create a vibrant winter garden. In our fast-paced, technology-driven society, such a landscape re-connects us with the natural world and provides an instant balm for the soul.
As I reflect on the winter landscape, I am reminded of a frigid December night nearly 50 years ago in a small Pennsylvania town near the Pocono Mountains. With Christmas only hours away, every house was festooned with bright twinkling lights and other colorful holiday decorations. One house on the edge of town stood apart from the others, conspicuous by its lack of holiday decorations. That home owner’s choice of decoration was a single spotlight positioned to shine up through the branches of a white birch tree in the front yard. The spotlight caught the tree’s gleaming white bark, casting the tree branches in sharp contrast with the late night darkness. That breathtakingly beautiful image, so unexpected and so startling, has stayed with me all these years. To my mind, all the gaudy, bright Christmas decorations in the world could not compete with the sheer beauty and simplicity of that birch tree. It doesn’t take much to make a winter landscape exciting and powerful – a conifer here, a berried shrub there, perhaps an urn, or just a simple spotlight.
Foliage (Ondra, Nancy J., 2007)
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (Dirr, Michael A. 2009)
Planting Design – Gardens in Time and Space (Oudolf, Piet and Kingsbury, Noel, 2005)
Planting for All Seasons (Buchan, Ursula, 1999)
The Art of Gardening, Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer (Thomas, R. William, and the Chanticleer Gardeners, 2015)
The Nonstop Garden (Cohen, Stephanie and Benner, Jennifer, 2010)
Viburnums – Flowering Shrubs for Every Season (Dirr, Michael A., 2007)
“Patriotic Gardens: Red, White and Blue in Fall and Winter Gardens,” VCE Publication 426-228
“Problem-Free Shrubs for Virginia Landscapes,” VCE Publication 450-236
“Problem-Free Trees for Virginia Landscapes,” VCE Publication 450-237
“Selecting Landscape Plants: Conifers,” VCE Publication 426-605
“Selecting Landscape Plants: Broadleaf Evergreens,” VCE Publication 426-607