Make Gardens Look Better in the Winter

Marc Montefusco
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

There are four areas to think about: form, bark, berries, and believe it or not, flowers. As an example of how you can use form in the winter garden, think of the familiar shrub called Harry Lauderís Walking Stick (also known as the Contorted Filbert, scientific name Corylus avellana contorta.) To be honest, I donít think this particular shrub is very exciting in leaf. For me at least, it always looks like it is on the brink of disaster. But in winter, those twisted branches are wonderful against snow or a bare skyline. Grasses are another great winter garden feature. Many of the ornamental grasses weather to subtle shades of russet, pink, and beige that show to their best advantage against snow, but look good all winter. Do your scouting now in public gardens for trees, shrubs and other plants that exhibit good sculptural or textural qualities in the iron season.

Bark is an often-overlooked feature of trees and shrubs. For a quick bark-appreciation course, just look at a line of sycamores tracing a stream down a country valley. In the home landscape, birches are always popular, although they do not always do well in our area, but there are other choices: the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) sheds cinnamon-colored strips of bark all winter, and is a handsome small tree in other seasons as well. The Coral Bark maple (Acer palmatum "Sango Kaku") lives up to its name, providing multi-season interest. The typical summer and fall foliage of the Japanese maple drops to reveal dense coral-red branches, which liven up any landscape. Some dogwoods and willows also provide vivid winter color, especially cultivars of Cornus alba, C. sericea, and Salix alba. And as pretty as the flowers of Stewartia pseudocamellia are, the amazing bark of a mature specimen is even more exciting. If you havenít thought about bark before, this is a good time to start.

Berries and fruits are more than a colorful addition to the landscape Ė they also provide food for over-wintering birds. You might guess that Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) was a good choice, but think about species or single roses, which produce colorful hips that birds love and that you might want to try, too. Some hawthorns and crab apples (Malus and Crataegus spp.) keep their fruit long into the winter. You may be tempted to plant the colorful Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculata) but think twice: it can become an invasive pest.

Now for the real surprises. There has been a lot of work on breeding cold-hardy Camellias in the past decades: look for "Winter" in the varietal name, or make sure that that the plant is guaranteed to survive in this area. Youíll lose flowers to a hard freeze, but itís worth the gamble to get gorgeous pinks and whites in the fall landscape, and the glossy evergreen foliage is a nice bonus. The Hellebores called Christmas and Lenten Roses bloom later in our area than their optimistic names indicate, but they are wonderful perennials for moist shady locations, and they do provide much-needed color at bleak times of the year. Finally, donít forget the witch hazels, both native (Hammamelis virginiana) and imported cultivars (H. intermedia and H. mollis). Not only are their fall and late winter flowers visually appealing, but many are delightfully fragrant as well.

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