How to Plant for Winter Interest

Winter Cone Flowers (Photo by Gardens on Spring Creek)

by Andrew Scott, The Gardens on Spring Creek Horticulturist

Although we’re a few months out from the beautiful blooms that come with the warming days, it doesn’t mean your garden has to be drab until then. When planning or adding to a garden, it’s good to keep in mind seasonality so you can always look out your window and have something catch your eye, even amidst winter’s frost. 

One of the easiest ways to add winter interest to your landscape is to integrate evergreens. A plethora of pine, spruce, fir, arborvitae, and juniper cultivars are available, but there’s more than just conifers. While soils on the Front Range are generally too alkaline and clayey to cultivate holly (genus Ilex), Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) is a fantastic substitute with similarly shaped leaves that turn a glossy burgundy in winter; the ‘Compacta’ cultivar makes good ground cover. For something a bit softer, ‘Kannah Creek’ sulfur buckwheat and kinnikinnick cultivars like ‘Chieftain’ and ‘Pachito’ also offer similarly colored groundcover. For more height and structure, consider adding ‘Winter Gem’ or ‘Glencoe’ boxwood, broom (Cytisus spp.), daphnes, or cotoneasters.

Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Photo by Gardens on Spring Creek)

Ornamental grasses also contribute variety in structure, texture, and color to the garden, even when they go dormant and dry. Grasses with wispy inflorescences like Undaunted® ruby muhly and maidenhair grass look especially fantastic when backlit in the morning or evening. The same goes for many varieties of switchgrass, like ‘Shenandoah,’ ‘Northwind’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ that becoming tawny golds and oranges going into winter. For something more compact, ‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem becomes a brilliant bronzy pink and stays that way all winter. 

Some plants have year-round interest with structures that persist into winter. The rigid and spiky seedheads of Echinacea and Eryngium or the dainty umbels of ornamental onions and carrots provide vertical structure after other perennials fade. Persistent fruits like rosehips, crab apples, cactus fruit, and Pyracantha and Symphoricarpos berries (snowberry and coralberry) can attract birds, another type of winter interest. 

Tibetan Cherry (Photo by Gardens on Spring Creek)

For larger garden pieces, consider trees and shrubs with bark of interesting colors or textures so the plants still have something to offer after shedding their leaves. Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) is a current favorite of mine with pale raised lenticels punctuating smooth bronze bark, further contrasted by large swaths of exfoliating bark that gets backlit by the sun. Another fun woody is Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corynus avellena ‘Contorta’), otherwise known as corkscrew hazel for its uniquely gnarled and twisted branches. If you can’t find these, trees like paper birch, paperbark maple, and dogwood also offer deciduous interest and are readily available at nurseries. 

Finally, several plants show off and bloom when everything else is dead or dormant. Bulbs like snowdrops, daffodils, and winter crocus offer pops of color through the snow, while hardy forbs like hellebores and heaths scoff at the cold temperatures. While not technically a bloom, ornamental cabbages are incredibly cold hardy and range from white to green to red, sometimes on the same plant.

Sitting on the couch with a hot beverage and planning your spring garden is a wonderful winter activity, but it’s clear that planning a winter garden can be just as fun and challenging. A mix of evergreens, grasses, persistent structures, fascinating wood, and winter bloomers will have your garden bringing you beauty all year long!

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