Landscaping the Winter Garden

Mary Ellen Bank
Adams County Master Gardener

The end of February 2014 may be the best time a garden-conscious homeowner has to contemplate changes in the area around their yard to highlight that space for more dramatic views ten months from now in the middle of the next snowy winter. Planting for a winter showcase outside your window, starts right there from your seat on a favorite chair as you read todayís newspaper. Changing the look outside of the house from a location inside can take place from anywhere in your home. Pick an indoor spot from where your window view to the outside is one you particularly enjoy, and that you think would look even better with a few changes. To help you as you think about starting a project like this, take some pictures looking through the window as it appears now in the end of winter. Your pictures will help as you begin to consider the changes that will make that window view different next winter when you look outside.

Putting a lot of thought and imagination into these changes starts by examining the color and structure of your yard from inside. As you look out the window, consider the light it receives over the day, what colors are most common in the space, and the kind of plants already in the garden. If your gardenís personality is one dependent on annual flowers and a few perennials for spring and summer color, that bed space may look rather brown, flat, and bland now in late February.

Or, you might have a nice evergreen hedge along your property line, which is bright enough, but it lacks depth because you do not have plants in front of that shrub screen. Even if your yard has a layered look, with a variety of small trees, a few shrubs, and perennials, at this time of year it lack a little pizzazz because it has an absence of color. The elements you are looking for are color, shape, height, width, depth, and texture. So how can you get started, even now in late February or early March, with your pictures of this spot? Consider a two things you can do now on a mild day when the weather entices you outdoors.

One of the easiest things you can do is to put a decorative object in some part of the area to be changed, and see how you like it as a focal point from your inside perch. A chair or bench, short stretch of old wrought iron or wooden fencing, or large rock might provide some special interest. You could leave the piece in that spot to admire for the rest of this season; as well as, keeping it there for inspiration, as you ponder what would be a better choice. Your imagination has no limits, keeping in mind a focal decorative object, should be right size for your overall area, and meets the goal of complementing your planting scheme.

Another thing you can do on a warmer day is clean up the area to be rearranged and updated by removing old plant material, and even pruning out some branches or limbs that are making the space look messy or crowded. Opening up the space a little, gives you the opportunity to visualize the spot differently, and time to think more about what you can do next.

Taking pictures of the area to be changed helps you in deciding what you want to do, especially when you go to a nursery to select some new plants. In addition, adding some kind of decorative feature; such as a piece of furniture, a statue or some other decorative object could provide a focal point for your space to complement the plants that may be added. Since changes are going to emphasize color, shape, texture, size, and form, this is a good place to discuss the plants that are part of the design. One of the stand-out ways to create color in the winter landscape is to use shrubs or small trees with ornamental berries or fruit. Three plants do that well, and are: Winterberry, American Beautyberry, and a dwarf crabapple.

The Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a rather upright small 8-10 ft. native shrubby tree, has glossy leaves through spring and summer. If space is a premium in your yard, you may want to locate a cultivar called Red Sprite, which has a more rounded form and grows to 3-5 ft. Both varieties develop berries after small flowers in spring, and both are attract pollinators, especially honey bees. As Fall changes into winter, the leaves drop, and evidence of the rather large berries, become an outstanding feature. The scarlet berries cover the stems, and remain on the branches throughout winter. This specimen looks particularly well when placed in front of evergreens for the contrast between the green and red colors. Or, if you have a rather large space you are changing for winter enhancement, Winterberries look great planted in a curved space about 10 ft. apart, and would create a visual barrier towards a less than pleasing vista. The berries are a favorite food source for many over-wintering birds. The Winterberry is dioecious, meaning that it bears fruit on the female plant, and requires a male pollinator nearby. When purchasing Winterberry you will need to inquire which of the common male varieties; Southern Gentleman, Jim Dandy, or Apollo will be the best for your female tree. The male need not be close to the female plant, so it can be in another portion of your yard, so as not to crowd the newly developed winter focus spot you are creating.

Another good choice for a showcase native plant would be the American Beautyberry (callicarpa americana). This bush has a waterfall appearance as its branches arch downward. The plant can be as wide as it is tall in the 3-5 ft. range, and can fill an empty looking space over a 2-3 year period. Its overall size can be adjusted each spring by pruning the shrub down to about 12-18 inches. It will push new branches and bloom on its new growth. The flowers are small, pink, attract pollinators, and cover the branches close to the stem. The forming berries number in the hundreds, and turn purple as they mature. When the plant loses its leaves in the fall the branches are thickly arrayed with the small vibrant magenta berry clusters. Against snow in particular, and in bright light, the berries more than do their share to brighten up the landscape. These berries are a favorite of birds.

And, finally in the category of small trees would be dwarf tree varieties. Most small spaces for an enhanced focal point, given an aesthetic perspective, would do best with a tree that is less than 10 ft. at maturity. Seeking dwarf varieties cover a wide range of options including contorted species; such as, pines, willows, and nuts; as well as fruit-bearing crabapple or ornamental cherry trees. The advantage of a contorted plant is that its shape introduces a form that is intriguing. But, in the interest of providing color, and perhaps wildlife attraction, the small or dwarf forms of crabapple or cherry add a lot of value. Two varieties of a dwarf crabapple tree to consider would be: Morning Princess or Royal Beauty.

In Conclusion

Winter is ending, but now is the time to think about how February 2015 can look outside your window. If you move around some of the plants you already have, invest in new plants, and place some decorative weather-friendly artifacts into your landscape you can have a lovely warm spot indoors from which to savor your winter garden. Starting with the view from your window, you can expand the scope of that scene, and bring a new look to your winter landscape with the color, shape, form, and fancy of plants and objects you treasure and love. Give it a try and enjoy your accomplishment.

Read other winter related gardening articles

Read other articles on garden and landscape design

Read other articles by Mary Ellen Banks