Winter Gardening Wonderland

 Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

ardening in the North presents a set of challenges that our friends to the South don’t face. For those of us who want to enjoy our gardens throughout all four seasons, a bit more imagination is required during winter. I used to shear perennials back to the ground in the fall; now I am very selective about what I cut back.

My favorite perennial to survive the hardships of winter is the Autumn Joy Sedum. A row of blooms on stocky stems creates a great little landscape with seed heads poking through the snow. Another attention-getter in the winter landscape is a giant snow-capped sunflower stripped of its petals and slightly bent with the weight of the snowcap. Birds enjoy the seeds throughout the winter, and the stems can be easily broken off and discarded in the compost pile after the winter thaw. Dying foliage and seedpods really do serve a purpose; leaving them encourages self-seeding, and the pods are quite dramatic.

Holly brightens the landscape with bright shiny leaves all winter long. Hollies come in many sizes, shapes, and leaf arrangements that vary in color from the variegated green and white varieties to deep green as well as blue-green. Small shrubs like winterberry or red twig dogwood brighten the landscape with sparkling shots of red against the snow. Many witch hazels bloom in January or February, depending on the variety, and come in many colors.

Despite the frost, a few other plants come to mind that hold their foliage and display a range of tones in the winter garden. One is fetterbush, a shrub with arching branches that sport maroon leaves with bronze tones. ‘Gold Heart’ ivy blushes in the cold, as do sedums like hens and chicks. Firethorn (Pyracantha), Heavenly Bamboo (Nadina Domestica) and spent rose blooms smolder with color. These winter features linger long into winter, not only to brighten the landscape, but also to feed the birds.

If you want to dress up your winter garden for next year, start planning now. Check out your local nursery for the many varieties of hardy shrubs that are guaranteed to provide winter color. Ask for the earliest blooming varieties of witch hazel so that you can pick up a new color in your winter landscape that begins just after the holidays.

Another thrill of the season is seeing the architecture of the garden that has changed in the cold. Vistas of the landscape open up, with leafless shrubs and trees creating new points of interest. Various shapes of beds and borders are clearly seen. Evergreens stand out; clipped hedges, fences, benches and paths add to the pattern. Garden ornaments such as statuary and birdbaths take on new meaning. This is the ideal time to review their placement and consider additions in the coming year.

As I review my winter landscape, I am encouraged to plant more evergreens. Since they come in a variety of colors, I can choose from blue spruce, golden arborvitae, and the silvery Korean fir, for example. In addition, evergreens sport an upright habit or weep with branches that are as graceful as can be. One fine example of a weeping habit is the Picea abies ‘Pendula.’ Among those evergreens that are upright, yet graceful, are the stately balsam and Douglas fir.

Hardscape in your winter garden provides special interest as the snow drifts against and covers part but not all to form a unique design. We use appropriate pieces of hardscape, such as light poles, fences or wagon wheels, to suspend bird feeders or hold suet "cages." The birds appreciate the nourishment and provide a colorful show on bright days when they come out to stock up for the next storm. We encourage our feathered friends to dine and put up extra feeders in exchange for their cheery songs.

The recent addition of a small bird feeder attached to our breakfast room window for close-up viewing has added a whole new dimension of bird watching to our winter pleasures. It is small, just for small birds - attracting juncos, chickadees, sparrows and an occasional cardinal. The only drawback is that the small size requires frequent filling, a small price to pay for the front seat view!

As winter wanes, my advice is to consider the long months of grass cutting and weeding that will soon be upon us. Rather than longing for signs of spring and greening of the landscape, focus on the sights that will disappear shortly before you know it! Sit back and relax - look for the beauty before you in the snowy landscape nearby.

As I write this article I can sense that spring is just around the corner. I noticed just this afternoon in a patch of melting snow the head of a hyacinth pushing through the soil. I was tempted to push back some deeper snow around it to see what other signs of spring I could find, but then decided to let Mother Nature take care of the bulbs protected by the snow until the time is right. In the meantime, until the first blooms poke through the snow, I will be content to find signs of life, and color, in my outdoor winter wonderland.

Read other articles on winter gardening

Read other articles by Kay Hinkle