Enjoying Your Garden in Winter

Kalai Wherley
Adams County Master Gardener

It is December and most gardeners, after readying their gardens for winter, think that their only enjoyment will be perusing the seed catalogs for next spring. During winter there is a lull in gardening chores, but there does not have to be a lull in the enjoyment of your garden. In winter a whole new aspect of your garden is revealed that is usually hidden by foliage and upstaged by showy flowers. So don a warm coat and venture out into the fresh brisk air to explore the wonders of your garden in winter.

Now that the colorful flowers and most of the green backdrop of foliage have faded into memory, patterns and textures become the stars of your garden. Did you ever look closely at the winged bark on a burning bush, Euonymus alata? Look closely at your other shrubs and observe their bark textures and patterns. Some shrubs have mottled bark or peeling bark patterns. A more obvious source of bark texture is on trees. My favorite is the mottled white, gray and brown bark of the American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. The bare white upper branches of a sycamore against a clear blue winter sky are a beautiful sight on a cold sunny afternoon. Bark textures vary from the smooth gray bark of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) to the many white tones of peeling, striated bark on some birches (the genus Betula), to the heavily furrowed bark of mighty oaks. Bare branches of any shrub or tree present interesting patterns to an observer. For me a silhouette of a bare-branched tree against the pink-orange glow of a winter sunset is the perfect ending to a winter day.

Of course shrubs and trees are not the only plants to add texture and patterns to the winter garden. Ornamental grasses are a big source of interest in the winter. In my garden, northern sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, and a variegated bamboo from the genus Pleiblastus play a dominant role during winter. I love to watch the seed heads of the northern sea oats sway in the wind, at least until a wet snow flattens the plants down. The bamboo keeps its variegated green and white color well into winter and adds interest even in snow.

Fruiting bodies of other plants add interest and color to an otherwise drab season. At this time of year everybody thinks of holly berries, genus Ilex. This genus has a wide variety of trees and shrubs with most all forms bearing the bright red berries famous for Christmas decorations. But hollies are not the only colorful fruiting bodies found in the garden. Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, bears attractive red berries to rival the famous holly berry. This year even my unassuming winter creeping euonymus, Euonymus fortunei, bore attractive red and yellow berries. Lack of leaves helps solve mysteries like the origin of mysterious orange and red berries that were showing up on our lawn. Turns out a bittersweet vine, Celatrus scandens, had produced berries at the top of our maple tree and they were falling forty feet to the lawn below. The showiest berries I have ever seen belong to the Japanese beautyberry, Callicarpa japonica, which bears bright purple berries during the winter.

Beauty and interest do not have to be limited to the plants in your winter garden. Wildlife is an aspect of our gardens that we don't always notice during the warmer months unless they are using it as an all night buffet. Birds offer unlimited enjoyment with varying colors and sizes. Birds like cardinals and blue jays offer bright color to an otherwise drab landscape. If you are lucky you might even spot a flock of eastern bluebirds flitting around the edges of an overgrown field. Slate-colored juncos are not colorful but their gray plumage is no less striking in the winter garden. And let us not forget the antics of our squirrel and chipmunk friends as they scurry about the garden finding the last remnants of seeds and nuts. For some of us, visits from deer or even bear are not impossible and offer excitement different from the arrival of the latest seed catalog.

There is something that can change all of the aspects of the winter garden and give it a whole new look . . . a fresh layer of snow. Snow adds drama and contrast to any garden. The muted earth tones of tan, gray, and brown are traded for white and a wide spectrum of blues. You don't even have to venture out of your warm house to enjoy a snow covered garden. Just look out your window to enjoy the patterns of blue cast shadows dancing over planes of white or the snow sparkling in the sunlight. If you do venture out to take a closer look, keep an eye out for wildlife tracks. Tracks not only add interesting patterns in the snow, but tell stories of lives that you might not have even known to exist, like the mouse that may be living outside your backdoor.

Your garden in the winter months probably can not offer the same show and color as the garden in summer. If you are willing to look, there is still a unique, subtle beauty that you will only find during winter. The muted tones of browns, tans and grays against a clear blue sky offers an understated splendor. Splashes of color from berries or birds are rare and treasured. Enjoying the garden in winter offers another advantage: you will be able to spot the first signs of spring as your garden awakens from its winter nap.

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