Add winter interest to your gardens

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As you look out your windows onto a wintery scene are you missing the colors, shapes, and forms of your summer garden? 

No need. If you want to be delighted rather than depressed with your views, plan now to add some winter interest to your garden with color, texture, and form.

Crape myrtle’s exfoliating bark adds textural interest. 

Let’s start with texture. Adding plants with interesting bark textures ratchets up the “wow” factor in a landscape. Personal favorites are the shaggy bark of river birch and the mosaic bark of crape myrtles. Both have striking multiple trunks and crape myrtles range from 3 to 30 feet to fit any landscape. Other trees have smooth bark, furrowed bark or bark like an elephant’s trunk. Mix it up. The excellent book, “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs,” includes bark photos in each plant profile.

With needles short or long, spiky, clustered or drooping, evergreen trees boast appealing texture. Seeing Norway spruce’s kimono sleeves dusted with snow makes you really, really want one. 

But trees aren’t the only plants that tout texture. Think shrubs, ornamental grasses, and perennials. I can’t walk by a leatherleaf viburnum without stroking its coarse, deeply veined leaves. Ditto for holly’s glossy leaves. 

The seed heads of ornamental grasses and perennials also can add striking texture. The snow-capped seed heads of coneflowers and Brazilian verbena look especially fine. 

Now, let’s pop some color into your winter garden. You’ll find it in the crimson branches of red twig dogwood and the berries of hawthorns, hollies, and winterberries. But red isn’t the only color you can cultivate. 

Winterberry adds bright color to the winter landscape

Some junipers tinge purple in the winter or hold onto their summer blues. Tan ornamental grasses contrast well with snow and add movement when stirred by the wind.

Crabapples dangle yellow, orange, and red fruits while viburnums show off berries of red, purple, black, or blue. And most evergreens are, well, green.

Mother Nature stocks her palette with softer colors. Grey rocks sport green lichen. Wood ages from brown to grey. Use natural materials to add color and beauty to walkways, benches, fences, and accents. 

Suffuse your garden with your favorite colors. In the European garden Kiftsgate, the owners carefully placed splashes of bright blue. It adorns a bench, garden gate, and more to perfect effect. So grab your paintbrush. 

Now, let’s talk form. Mixing shapes creates a well-designed landscape, but those shapes are most noticeable in winter when deciduous trees have dropped their leaf dresses. What do the bare bones of your landscape tell you? Look for shapes – round, square, triangle, oval, pillar, vase, and teardrop – and add what’s missing. 

If your landscape is filled with lollipops – round balls on sticks like maples – then add something layered and wider like a dogwood, triangular like a spruce, or columnar like an arborvitae. Weeping forms improve every garden.

When garden designers tell us to plan for the view, they mean the views from both the inside and outside.  So look out your windows and imagine what you want to see. Then make it happen.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.


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11 Comments on “Add winter interest to your gardens

  1. I am responding to the “Add winter interest to your gardens” article posted here. It seems a shame that this article suggests planting non-native plants when we so crucially need the natives for ecological support. It seems to me that we should always promote native species for habitat beautification and enrichment, especially as Master Gardeners and representatives of the State of Maryland.

    • Thank you for your comment, Peg. I agree that we should encourage natives which is why most of the plants mentioned are native plants. The river birch and winterberry are natives. Additionally, there are 4 native hollies, 2 hawthorns, 1 native crabapple and 1 native coneflower in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The crape myrtle and Norway spruce are the only non-natives referenced. Conservationist, author and entomologist Doug Tallamy recommends incorporating at least 70 percent native plants in landscapes to help pollinators, other beneficial insects and the ecosystem at large. Yes, we should recommend native plants, but I think it important that our recommendations be balanced and not suggest that only native plants are acceptable in landscapes.

      • Annette–This article is excellent in so many ways. I love that you promote plants of various shapes, especially. However, you responded to a comment saying “The crape myrtle and Norway spruce are the only non-natives referenced.” This makes me question whether you should be publishing. Here are other non-natives you promoted: leatherleaf viburnum (non-native and invasive) and Brazilian verbena.

    • Dear Peg,
      You are the kind of Maryland Master Gardener I want to hear! You get it. My partner and I are in the Master Naturalist program, instead of Master Gardner, because so many Master Gardeners are more like Annette. It’s a shame. Let’s hope the program “grows” to embrace the wonderful native plants that support our wildlife. It’s so easy to do!
      Kathy

  2. I second Pat Nemoff’s comment. Natives should be the backbone of any garden.

    This winter I observed that “Little Henry” itea virginica held on to many of its red-tinted leaves despite the prolonged cold spell. I’m going to move it in front for all-season interest. And this was my first year for leucothoe fontanesiana, both a dwarf variety and “rainbow.” Looks like this colorful evergreen shrub is going to be a star in my future winter landscapes.

    • Dear P. Paterson,
      I “third” Pat Nemoff’s comment about this article! I am glad that you are supporting wildlife with your beautiful native plants.
      Kathy

  3. Thanks for echoing our support of native plants. I’m glad you have had success with both your itea and leucothoe. They are both handsome plants. I hope you enjoy them for many years to come.

  4. Dear Annette,
    I do not agree with using Doug Tallamy as your defense for including non-natives in your article. If there were no equally beautiful natives, you would have a case. As it is, you are promoting planting non-natives over natives. Doug’s point is that people do not need to feel guilty if they want to keep a favorite non-native. I was excited to read the article, then I was shocked when the first thing I saw was the bark of crepe myrtle! You could have easily chosen river birch or sycamore. This article was to promote planting plants for winter interest. There is no excuse to promote non-natives.
    Very sincerely,
    Kathy Daniel

  5. Dear Annette,
    I do not agree with using Doug Tallamy as your defense for including non-natives in your article. If there were no equally beautiful natives, you would have a case. As it is, you are promoting planting non-natives over natives. Doug’s point is that people do not need to feel guilty if they want to keep a favorite non-native. I was excited to read the article, then I was shocked when the first thing I saw was the bark of crepe myrtle! You could have easily chosen river birch or sycamore. This article was to promote planting plants to ADD winter interest. There is no excuse to promote non-natives.
    Very sincerely,
    Kathy Daniel

  6. I respect your perspective, but I believe that recommending only native plants is unrealistic and can be off-putting to those who are trying to do the right thing and reshape their landscapes. Adrian Higgins’ writes in his Washington Post column on Doug Tallamy, “Tallamy says you can still have 30 percent of nonnative varieties and accrue the ecological benefits of a native plant landscape.”

    • Dear Annette,
      I do not agree with using Doug Tallamy as your defense for including non-natives in your article. Doug’s point is that people do not need to feel guilty if they want to KEEP a favorite non-native. Your article “Add winter interest to your gardens” was to promote planting plants to ADD winter interest. I do not see what is off putting or unrealistic about promoting beautiful plants that are already all around us in nature.
      Kathy Daniel

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