The Winter Garden

Betty Jakum
Adams County Master Gardener

You can enjoy a beautiful garden no matter what season of the year. Just as you can transform your natural surroundings during the growing seasons with colorful blooms and ripening fruits and vegetables; so, too, can you turn winterís season into one of beauty, bounty and interest. Annuals may be long gone, perennials may have died back to the ground, and deciduous plants may stand stripped of their leaves; nevertheless, there are still many wonderful shrubs and trees available to liven the dreariest of winter landscapes. Carefully selecting plants for their evergreen foliage, colorful barks and interesting form, and bright berries will add interest to your landscape all winter long.


When most else fails us, there are always the evergreens. During the growing season evergreens often act as background support to the more showy plants, but during winter their quiet, stately character moves them to the forefront often providing much needed color in the landscape. Junipers, firs, cedars, spruces, hemlocks, hollies, boxwood and pines give color as well as structure to the winter garden. They also provide nesting and roosting sites for birds and shelter small animals under low hanging branches. The berries and cones of evergreens feed animals, and small birds eat their seeds.

The Fir, the classic Christmas Tree, is a favorite evergreen. It thrives as far north as Canada yet can be grown successfully in our Mid-Atlantic region. It is one of the most hardy and aromatic conifers and retains its attractive, dense habit and symmetrical shape throughout its life. Fraser and Concolor firs both grow well in Pennsylvania.

With its bright green foliage, Boxwood is another choice for good winter color. Both the Common Boxwood and the Littleleaf Boxwood grow well in our area. A good pick for dramatic color is the Atlas Cedar. Itís an attractive tree in any season, but its blue green foliage really stands out in the winter landscape. The tree makes an excellent focal point in a large garden area.

Colorful Bark and Interesting Form

Often hidden behind a veil of green during the spring and summer, shrubs and trees with unusual bark and interesting form really stand out once the leaves have fallen. The Red Twig Dogwood adds color to the winter landscape after its leaves are gone. Its red stems and twigs range from dark coral to Chinese red and seem to get redder the colder it gets. It looks best in a clustered planting and certainly provides an eye-popping display in a snow-covered landscape. There is also a yellow-stemmed variety.

Another tree sporting a unique bark is the River Birch. A native, it has a scaly bark in colors from light reddish to cinnamon brown. It offers a rich textural contrast anytime of year, but especially in winter. These trees are most striking if planted in groupings against a dark background of foliage or shadow which provides them shade for their roots and acts to create a microenvironment to suit their needs. The Sycamore, a large, fast growing tree with white-speckled branches and trunk and mottled, peeling bark, is a standout in winter and a good choice for winter interest if you have the space.

If you want more form in the winter garden, the Harry Lauder Walking Stick is an excellent choice. The contorted branches and stems are twisted like corkscrews. Itís a magical small tree that can transform itself from a tortured Medusa shape into a whimsical sculpture with just a light dusting of snow. In my landscape the bare branches of Serviceberry, Sunburst Locust, and European Alder create some of the best silhouettes against a brilliant winter sunset. Weeping Birch and Witch hazel also add form to the winter garden. Ornamental grasses look fantastic there, too, and provide shelter for a variety of animals. The seeds of switchgrass, Indian grass and bluestem provide seeds that are eagerly consumed by sparrows and blackbirds.


Berries can be considered the flowers of winter. Not only do they add color to the garden, but they provide food as well. First choice in this category would have to be the American Holly. The fully-ripe berries almost seem to glow against winterís drab backdrop. They can prove irresistible to some birds. A mockingbird regularly visited my holiday door spray for its holly berries until they were all gone. Holly trees grow well in full sun or shade but need well drained soil to thrive. Be warned: These North American natives need a male pollinator within 300 feet to bear fruit.

Japanese barberry
Berberis thunbergii DC
Note: Japanese barberry is considered an invasive exotic plant

Winterberry hollies are my personal favorite. Most of the year these small trees or shrubs go unnoticed, but in late autumn, when their leaves are gone, the beautiful, brilliant orange-red berries are seen. Theyíre spectacular, but it doesnít take long for the local bird population to make short work of them. Sumac, chokeberries, Japanese Barberry, and European Cranberrybush are other plants whose lovely red berries help the birds make it through the long winter.

Winter doesnít need to be a time away from enjoying your garden. A winter garden can be as beautiful in its own way as any other if you carefully select plants that add interest to the winter landscape. And when is there more time than winter to sit back and enjoy the display?

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