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.


Save the date! On March 9, join together with fellow University of Maryland alumni, faculty and staff, students, and volunteers for an extraordinary day of giving back. Make a contribution to Home and Garden Information Center Fund for #GivingDayUMD!

Winter Pruning with Andrew Ristvey – The Garden Thyme Podcast

Although it may be cold and dreary outside, it’s the perfect time to take inventory of your deciduous trees and shrubs to see which plants would benefit the most from pruning. In this month’s episode, we’re sitting down with Extension Specialist in Commercial Horticulture, Dr. Andrew Ristvey. Dr. Ristvey is giving us the ins and outs on winter pruning. 

We also have our: 

  • Bug of the Month  (Winter Stoneflies) at 37:30
  • Garden Tips of the Month at 45:55
  • Native Plant of the Month ( American holly)  at   49:00

Here are some great resources to learn more about pruning: 

 If you have any garden-related questions please email us at  UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com or look us up on Facebook.

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County). Theme Song:  By Jason Inc


Save the date! On March 9, join together with fellow University of Maryland alumni, faculty and staff, students, and volunteers for an extraordinary day of giving back. Make a contribution to Home and Garden Information Center Fund for #GivingDayUMD!

Q&A: Winter gardening tasks

Q: Is there any outdoor garden task this time of year that I may be forgetting to do? I’ve foregone a fall clean-up for the benefit of overwintering wildlife, and the lawn and veggie garden are “asleep” for the season.

A: There are a few things that are good to accomplish during the dormant season. Yard tools like pruners, loppers, shovels, spades, and mower blades are best stored clean, sharpened, and oiled. There may be local businesses that offer sharpening services, but you can also do it yourself with a metal file or sharpening stone or rod.

Ideally, sharpen mower blades annually so the turf doesn’t have the added stress of ragged, torn leaf blades which can be more vulnerable to infection. A steel wool scrubber or a wad of sandpaper can take off early stages of rust and caked-on sap before you focus on the blades of pruning tools and shovels. Good-quality hand pruners can usually be disassembled for easier maintenance, and lightly wiping with oil afterwards helps lubricate the metal and resist rust. Linseed oil (or vegetable oil in a pinch) can be rubbed into wooden tool handles to protect them from aging.

Check on the location of pesticide containers and protect them from extreme temperatures (including freezing). Always store them away from human and animal food and well-secured from children and pets. Products you rarely use should be dated (if you recall when you bought or opened them) since they may only have a useful shelf life of a couple of years. Old pesticides can be disposed of by looking for household hazardous waste collection sites near you.

If you have staked any new plantings, check their ties to make sure the plants still have wiggle-room and bark isn’t being abraded. Stakes that have been in place for six to twelve months can be removed; they’ve either done their job by now or weren’t working in the first place. (Staking is actually not often needed, but at the very least it’s key to let a staked plant’s trunk sway in the breeze so stabilizing root growth and trunk thickening are stimulated.)

Similarly, if you left ID tags tied to any plants, remove them and any other plastic or elastic nursery tags before they damage the stems. Otherwise, any material that gets embedded in expanding growth will be impossible to remove and could cause branch decline in the future if it interferes with sap flow. Alternatively, tags may disintegrate over time and fall off, which means you’ll have lost your plant name. Tags will be easier to spot now on deciduous plants. Keep a record of the plant ID another way – a garden diagram or journal, or written on a stake at the plant’s base – as variety-specific features might impact care advice or future troubleshooting.

Lastly, if you’re overwintering hardy plants in containers, consider using “pot feet” or “pot risers” to raise the pot’s base off decking or pavement by an inch or two. This lets excess moisture clear the drainage holes so it doesn’t freeze into an ice dam, which would risk flooding roots. Any sturdy material where you can find several pieces the same height would suffice, but you could also purchase them in an array of materials, often in packs of three or four “feet” per pot.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. Read additional articles by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

Tips for using garden evergreens for holiday décor

Using evergreen cuttings to decorate the home offers an easy way to incorporate different textures, shapes, and aromas. Evergreens add a touch of simplicity, elegance, and nostalgia to holiday décor. They can be used easily on doors and entryways, as garland, or centerpieces. Cutting materials from your own landscape can provide a thrifty option.   

Here are a few tips for making evergreens a beautiful addition to your holiday décor. 

  1. If cutting from your own landscape, be cautious not to cut too much. Pruning in the early winter is generally not recommended unless it is to remove diseased or damaged material. It won’t hurt a well established plant to trim off a few branches, but try not to cut anything from newly installed plants. Check out this factsheet for additional information on pruning evergreens
  2. Caution! Several critters are overwintering on evergreens so once they get warm in your home, they will become active. These uninvited guests can cause surprise and panic from those not expecting them this time of year. If you find spiders, etc., you can put them outside.
  3. Keeping evergreens cool and hydrated will extend how long they stay fresh and beautiful. Place the ends of cut branches into water.  
  4. Often mixing different types of evergreens is a fun way to add unique smells, shapes, and texture to your home. 
  5. Shorter needled (hemlock/spruce) plants tend to lose their needles faster than longer needled species.
  6. Evergreen boughs are easy to stick into seasonal planters before the soil freezes. Be warned that if the branches freeze in the soil, they will be impossible to remove until it thaws. 
  7. Don’t forget to gather interesting seed pods, ornamental grasses, pine cones, etc. These add additional interest and natural beauty.

Some favorite cuttings include Junipers, Arborvitae, Holly, White Pine, Rhododendron, Boxwood, Lavender, and Rosemary.  If you have a live Christmas tree, be sure to repurpose those trimmings as well.

wreath made with grasses, seed pods, evergreens, and a bow
Here is a wreath base made from dried ornamental grass. Also, ornamental grass seed heads, Monarda seed heads, pine cones, and mixed evergreen cuttings are included. Photo: A. Bodkins
wreath made with Juniper and lamb's ear leaves
This wreath uses cuttings of native Eastern redcedar and leaves of lamb’s ear. Photo: C. Carignan
door swap made with evergreens, pinecones, and a bow
Door swag. Photo: A. Bodkins

As you gather your materials and get ready for crafting, remember that:

  1. Sharp pruners give a clean cut that will help increase the life of your branches and prevent premature needle drop. Guidance on sharpening pruning tools can be found here
  2. Use green floral wire to put cut branches together. It blends in well and is easy to work with. It is widely available at craft stores and low in cost. 
  3. Repurpose metal clothes hangers for inexpensive frames for swags/wreaths/garland. 
  4. Swags are often simpler and easier than a wreath to make and require less material, but provide a nice garnish for your entryway. Think of making a bouquet and then turn it upside down to get an easy door swag.
  5. If you’re placing cut evergreen stems into a container, use clean water and clean containers to prevent fungal and bacterial growth.
  6. Keep arrangements out of direct light and as far away as possible from the heat source.
  7. Misting cut evergreens can help extend their beauty.
  8. Using cut evergreens outside the home will help them last the entire season.
  9. Ribbon with wired edges is easier to work with for beginner bow makers. 

You can create many beautiful decorations by working with nature! Be creative and enjoy the gifts that your garden continues to give all year round. And it’s never too early to start thinking about garden plant additions for 2022! Think about items you could use in future holiday decorations or another season’s decor. 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

Q&A: What’s causing a line of holes on my tree trunk?

Q: A couple of my mature trees have developed holes in their bark over the years. Interestingly, they’re in a fairly even pattern, running up and down or horizontally across the trunk. Do you know what’s causing it and should I take any action?

A: This sounds like damage from a woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The evenness of their drilling pattern is characteristic of this species. They spend the winter in Maryland but breed further north in the summer (and in westernmost MD). Although a tree might eventually succumb to heavy damage, often their pecking causes no serious dieback.

yellow-bellied sap sucker bird on a tree trunk
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Photo: Pixabay

They create small circular pits or larger rectangular patch “wells” in the bark to access the sugary sap flow. Insects attracted to the oozing sap are also eaten. They favor forest-edge habitat, plentiful in suburbia, where there tend to be faster-growing young trees. Hundreds of tree and shrub species can be used, but birds prefer those with high sugar content in the sap or those that are ailing or already wounded from prior pest, disease, lightning, or storm damage (and possibly excessive pruning).

sapsucker holes in a tree trunk
Photo: University of Maryland Extension

You may be surprised to learn who else takes advantage of sapsucker activity. Northbound migrants of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depend on these sap wells as an early source of nourishment before spring blooms are available. Porcupines (Western MD) and bats also utilize them, plus squirrels and several other bird species. Their chiseling, while perhaps inconvenient to us, is therefore invaluable to forest biodiversity. You can learn more about sapsuckers in Cornell’s All About Birds web database.

If you don’t appreciate their drilling on your garden plants, well…there’s little you can do. As a migratory, nongame bird, they’re protected from harm by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You could exclude them by caging tree trunks that are being targeted, but this will simply force the birds to choose additional hosts in the area. Plus, it would be difficult to mount and secure such a barrier around a section of trunk with multiple branches. Don’t treat the trunk wounds with any sort of sealant, as that may hinder any healing that does occur. If any branches die back, just trim them off.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. Read additional articles by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

Q&A: Can you recommend plants that provide food for birds?

Cedar Waxwing dining on a Green Hawthorn berry. Photo: Miri Talabac

Q: This summer’s mysterious bird illness has me thinking…I’ve become more interested in birds during the past two years and would like to attract them to my yard with plants. Are there favored recommendations?

A: Bird-attracting landscaping definitely beats out bird feeders as the preferable way to bring these beauties into yards for easier viewing as a safer environment than a communal feeder. (While you’re at it, look into ways to discourage window strikes since plants, like feeders, could increase encounters with glass.)

Plant recommendations are going to be incredibly varied because the diet of birds is so varied, both across species and throughout the year. Site conditions in your garden will narrow down what may be an overwhelming list of choices. Here are some general tips:

  • Plant as much variety for which you have room.
  • Plant to provide food for insects and the birds will follow.
  • When looking at berry or seed production, consider productivity for each season.
  • Try to focus on native plants only, since birds will deposit their seeds beyond your landscape.

To pick a timely category – late-ripening berries – there are some notably popular species. Highly-ranked contenders for both resident and southbound migrant birds include Viburnums, Dogwoods (trees and shrubs), Spicebush, Virginia Creeper, Eastern Redcedar, Magnolia, Black Tupelo, Hackberry, Sassafras, Bayberry, Sumac, Hollies, and Hawthorn.

Cornell’s All About Birds web library plus local Audubon Societies are good resources for more thorough information on individual species diet, habitat preferences, and plant suggestions for both foraging and nesting.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.