Winter landscapes can be beautiful!

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener Coordinator

(12/1) The leaves are off the trees, the Christmas lights are hung, and the holiday season is here. But what about gardening? The days leading up to Christmas are a great opportunity to take walks outdoors and see the beauty of the plants. December brings us berries of all colors, interesting bark on trees and shrubs, and even a few flowers interspersed. If we take a look at where these winter spectacles grow, we can re-create wonderful winter gardens.

Winter landscapes can be beautiful. Shapes and forms come to the forefront in winter design as well as textures and silhouettes. Evergreen trees and shrubs become our mainstay in the winter landscape. But if we look beyond the obvious, we can recognize beauty in deciduous shrubs and trees, like bark and stems.

Trees like the paperbark maple, river birch and sycamore have three distinct silhouettes, three mature sizes and habits, but all share the same common interest: their bark.

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 that 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 ideal. 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 as well as marshy areas, has interesting bark. The cinnamon colored peeling bark is exciting in all four seasons. The leaves on this tree are small; the canopy is not dense, allowing the bark to be visible in and out of leaf. This tree will reach 50’ and 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 as a specimen 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. However, the sycamore is a large shade tree, adapting well to wet soils and 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 and coarse 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. Diseases like anthracnose and bacterial leaf scorch can cause early defoliation of the tree as early as August. The best defense against these problems is to keep the leaves and twigs that fall to the ground cleaned up as well as cutting out dead and dying limbs. It is a relatively fast growing tree, and may be a selection for quick shade.

In addition to trees, many shrubs also have interesting bark and twigs. Some of these include the oakleaf hydrangea and shrub dogwoods.

Oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, is a lovely large growing native shrub. The interest in this plant for the winter lies in the bark, much like the paperbark maple. The stems peel, showing a pretty cinnamon color and texture throughout the winter months. This plant likes more shade than sun. These plants have large white panicles of flowers in the summer, and have a lovely red fall color, making this a great choice for any season. As its name suggests, the leaves are shaped like an oak leaf, giving a coarse texture to your garden. This plant can be successfully used as a specimen plant or in a shrub grouping. Oakleaf hydrangeas will reach 6’ – 8’. Since this is a very large shrub, be sure you place this at the right location so you do not have to prune to reduce or maintain the size. It looks best in its natural form.

There are dwarf cultivars available in the industry like ‘Pee Wee’. This pretty shrub has all the characteristics of the straight species, but will maintain a size of 3’-4’, making this an exciting shrub for foundation plantings for all season interest.

The dogwoods, Cornus alba, Cornus stolonifera, and Cornus sericea, are all species of the red and yellow twig dogwoods. These shrubs are not known for their flowers but for their winter color in the twigs. As their name suggests, the stems are a brilliant red or yellow, giving color in our winter gardens. Many varieties of these plants are available. Typically this group of plants can grow to 10’, but some varieties have been selected to remain shorter, closer to the four – five foot range, to fit better into the average landscape. Ask your nurseryman for varieties that are shorter. This plant will adapt well to most soils, but naturally will grow in wetter locations. This plant group will need to be pruned regularly as the colored twigs are the newest growth. The old wood becomes brown. Just cut out the old wood in the spring before the plant comes out into leaf, and your plants will keep their bright twig color.

Often when speaking of berried plants, birds are the source of the discussion. As much as I love watching the birds in the winter and value the food we provide through plantings, I’d like to propose a different perspective on our winter wonderland.

Consider the value of the textures and shapes these winter plants provide through their berries. Some of the plants I’ll mention have berries that hang in clusters at the end of the branches, and some are up and down the branch, held singly. The snow enhances these textures as the lack of leaves enhances the branching structure.

Callicarpa Americana is a native shrub that has purple berries along the stem of the shrub. These purple berries are unique in color. The plants grow relatively quickly, reaching up to six feet so they can create a barrier in short notice. They do best in moist, well-drained soil in part-shade.

Viburnum trilobum, American Cranberry bush, is a native shrub that reaches up to 12 feet tall. It likes sun to part shade, gets a nice red fall color, white flowers in the spring and red berries. The berries give a great texture to the winter landscape. It looks great used as a specimen or in a hedgerow.

Symphoricarpus Proud Berry TM is a smaller shrub that has pink berries. It only gets about 4 feet tall and wide, so it is a smaller deciduous shrub. Its description boasts that deer dislike it, and so far my experience has proved that to be true. However, the birds aren’t crazy about it either, which just means that the berries will be lingering much longer than most berried shrubs! Part shade is best for this plant, but I have it growing in full sun and it’s doing quite well.

‘Winter Gold’ holly, Ilex verticillata, is an unusual cultivar as it has golden berries instead of the typical red berries. It is a very exciting choice, appearance-wise, for a winter landscape and it is more available than ever in the nurseries. This plant likes part shade but will grow in full sun if it has enough moisture. It grows to about 4 – 5 feet.

Check out some of these trees and shrubs in catalogs and on-line. Also, look around at the plant life in nature as you take winter walks. Gather the stems and berries that you may see and identify them. They just may be the next best plant for your winter landscape.

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