Making your yard more attractive in the winter

Darlene Endy
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Winter landscapes offer a quiet beauty of muted colors, focusing on shape and form. Gone are the lush blooms and full foliage of summer, leaving the bare outline of trunks and branches. Evergreens form the backbone of a winter landscape. Pine, spruce, and hemlock provide height while their color contrasts with the bare ground or snow. Bird watchers will want to include plants with colorful berries. Some deciduous trees have bark with beautiful color or texture. Many offer an interesting branching pattern that is lovely draped in snow. Including plants at several heights (such as trees, shrubs, and perennials) provides visual interest. Making the most of this season in your landscape requires a little planning now, so that in the spring you can add the living elements that can transform your outdoor view.

Some brave shrubs flower in late fall or winter. The witch hazel has several cultivars with delicate blossoms on strong compact branches. Hamamelis Mollis offers yellow to chartreuse blossoms, H. Japonica blooms yellow and others vary in reddish or yellow shades. Another winter bloomer is Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). This viney shrub blooms repeatedly in neon yellow throughout the winter.

Shrubs with colorful winter berries are beautiful to people and birds alike. Watch your feathered friends enjoy some of these choices. Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) drops its leaves to reveal red berries that attract wild birds in winter. Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a low, spreading shrub with aromatic foliage that deer dislike and waxy, gray fruit (think bayberry candles). American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum 'Compactum') bears white flowers in early summer followed by masses of red berries. The foliage changes to colors from red to purple in the fall and grows to 4-5' tall, spreading 3-4' wide. Evergreen hollies show off glossy leaves along with their berries. China holly (Ilex meserveae) is drought tolerant and grows 8' tall and 8' wide. Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra 'Compacta') has dark green foliage and black berries. It grows to 3-6' high and 3-5' wide.

Japanese barberry
Berberis thunbergii DC
Note: Japanese barberry is considered an invasive exotic plant

Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergi) produces yellow flowers in spring followed by red berries in the fall. Their leaves change to reddish purple and they grow from 4-6' in height and width. The purple-black berries of Viking black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa 'Viking') are unpalatable to birds and often last through late winter unless birds get really hungry. The foliage ranges from red to purple in the fall and grows to 3-5' tall and wide.

Plants with striking bark are more vivid in the winter without leaves to obstruct the view. Try hardy Red Osier dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Allemans'), which blooms white flowers in May and then bark that turns fiery red to burgundy in the winter. It grows to 6'-10' tall and 5'-10' wide. Another variety to try is Yellow Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea') whose branches are bright yellow. Rich texture is a hallmark of the birch tree bark as it sheds in strips. Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) peels off in white strips, and Yellow birch (Betula aleghaniensis) yields shiny gold bark. River birch (Berula nigra) offers a warm reddish brown bark. Also consider 'Heritage' with salmon color bark. Chinese or Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) reveals a mottled bark of gray, green, orange, and brown. Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) got it's name from the brilliant red foliage it displays in the fall, but it works equally hard in the winter, when it's "wings" of bark catch clumps of snow. This bush grows to 10-15' tall and wide, but being invasive, must be kept under control.

Some plants can't be fully appreciated until they "disrobe" and reveal the beautiful skeleton form underneath their foliage. Hornbeam (Carpinous caroliniana) is often called blue beech or muscle wood because it has smooth, bluish gray bark with strips of dark gray mixed in. The branches grow in a fluted shape and look hard and lean. Also consider European hornbeam (Carpinous betulus) or Carpinous Japonica. Hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is also known as Ironwood. In addition to its red, shaggy bark it has fine branches that end in narrow, pointed buds. It grows to 30-40' tall. Some conifers drop their needles in the winter to reveal interesting shapes. Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) have elegant form and are tolerant of harsh conditions. Young's weeping birch (Betula pendula 'Youngii') is a dwarf variety (6-12' tall) with a delicate branching pattern.

Perennials may not be grown for their winter appearance, but can offer attractive shapes after their colors fade. For example, sedums like Autumn Joy collect snow on their seed heads. Ornamental grasses have tall thin stems and fluffy tops that stay attractive well into winter. Try Miscanthus, Panicum or Calamagrostis genus. Plume grass (Erianthus raennae) grows to 8 -11' tall. Roses display beautiful hips in winter. Shrub roses like 'Bonica', 'Carefree Beauty' and 'Golden Wings', and Rugosa roses like 'Fru Dagmar Hastrup' , 'Jens Munk', and 'Rubra' offer a colorful fruit show.

Spend a little time observing your winter landscape, whether through a window from a cozy easy chair or a brisk stroll around outside. Where could you use some height that an evergreen tree could provide? Would you like to watch birds feast on berries from your breakfast nook? If so, plant a shrub with winter berries. Do you prefer the contrast of shapely bare branches against the gray skyline? Consider trees with beautiful form. Whatever your taste, there are many plants with unique winter attributes from which to choose.

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