Trees for the Winter Landscape

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

For many of us, our holidays are spent rushing from one place to another, finishing our shopping, completing our "to do" list, and missing the wonderful things nature has for us to enjoy. Take a break and look at the beautiful gardens nature has provided. Ever wonder what those plants were that are holding their berries? Or the tree that has bark peeling from the trunk? How about those shrubs with red or yellow stems by the creek?

We can create these winter gardens with just a few good choices of plants that will thrive in our climate. When thinking about designing a winter garden, let's think about texture and form. Unless you choose an evergreen shrub, leaves will be missing this time of year. So bark, color and form become of the utmost importance.

Some trees that offer winter interest include paperbark maple, river birch and sycamore. The paperbark maple, Acer griseum, is one of my favorite trees. This slow-growing tree offers a cinnamon colored, peeling bark on the trunk and branches. It is a slow grower, but certainly worth the wait. It likes part shade to full sun and reaches about 20-25'. It's not fussy about soil, but don't place it in a really dry location. Well drained soils are best. This is a great selection for a specimen tree or focal point in the garden where the tree bark and color will be visited on a more personal level.

River birch, Betula nigra, a native tree to river and creek banks, and has interesting bark as well. This tree has a cinnamon colored peeling bark that has excitement in all four seasons. The leaves on this tree are small, and the canopy is not dense, allowing the bark to be visible in and out of leaf. This tree will reach 50', and is considered a medium grower. This tree will thrive in moist soils, but lucky for us, it is very versatile, adapting to drier locations as well. In a grouping of three or five, this selection is outstanding. Use it as a plant grouping in the yard, or as a single tree in a foundation planting. Grown in clumps or single stemmed allows for a variety of design styles, from a more natural look to a formal appearance.

What about sycamores? Much like the river birch, this tree is also native and seen along creek banks. This tree is a large shade tree, adapting well to wet soils as well as well drained soils. It too has a peeling bark, white and gray in color, making a very interesting addition to your winter landscape. Its heavy branching structure makes it an exciting tree in the yard.

The sycamore will reach to 100' if kept healthy. However, this particular tree does have some issues. It readily gets a disease called anthracnose. This will cause early defoliation of the tree as early as August. The best defense against this disease it to keep the leaves and twigs that fall to the ground cleaned up. This will reduce the likelihood of re-infestation. Anthracnose typically does not kill the sycamore, but with yearly attacks of this disease, will cause the tree to become weak, and other insects, disease or cultural damage like drought may take this tree out. It is a relatively fast growing tree, and may be a selection for quick shade.

There are many more trees that can be selected for winter interest. The trick is to know what the effect is that you may want, design the area for an all season garden focusing on the winter, and choose the right plant for that particular location. Trees are the ceiling in a winter garden; they can also serve as the walls. The interest should be focused on the bark and the texture of the canopy. Enjoy all the seasons in the garden and look to nature for your guide.

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