Too often, winter is considered the dead season in the garden. It doesn’t have to be that way when you plan and plant with every season – not just spring and summer – in mind.
“There is nothing more beautiful to me than the silhouette of trees against a winter sky,” says Peggy Krapf of Heart’s Ease Landscape & Garden Design – www.HeartsEaseLandscape.com – in Williamsburg, Va.
“This is where good or bad pruning becomes really evident. Trees should be carefully pruned so they are as beautiful in the winter as they are in the summer.
“I also love ornamental grasses in the garden any time of year – but especially winter. They are a lovely foil for other plants around them and the birds love to eat the seeds they produce. They add great interest to the winter landscape. I cut them down in early spring, just as the new growth begins.”
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In Krapf’s viewpoint, the best winter gardens have a good balance of evergreen plants to deciduous species so everything doesn’t “disappear” in winter. Be sure to choose plants carefully for winter because deer are hungriest at that time of year, less picky about what they will and won’t eat and are likely to nibble on most anything, she advises.
“I especially love gardens with a lot of strong structural elements as well … or good ‘bone,’ “ says Krapf, a member of the Virginia Society of Landscape Designers - www.vsld.org.
“Paving, walls, fencing, patios, even statuary and accents like benches and birdhouses give interest to a space when many plants are dormant or not looking their best.
“Even containers can be filled with greenery and colorful berries to carry through till the worst of winter is past.
For an eye-catching winter garden, Krapf favors perennials like Hellebores (both orientalis and foetidus), evergreen ferns, euphorbia and some herbs such as rosemary and sage.
“One I especially love is Arum Italicum, known as Lords and Ladies,” she says.
“I call it ‘hosta for the winter,’ but this one is deer resistant. Shiny, speckled, arrow-shaped leaves appear in great clumps in late fall and persist all winter long, looking fresh even in the coldest weather. I use them in flower arrangements with hellebores and other winter evergreens. When weather warms the leaves go dormant and completely disappear. The plants then send up foot-tall stems in summer that are covered with orange berries for multi-season interest.”
MAHONIAS AND MORE
In Yorktown, Va., Allan Hull, nursery manager at Peninsula Hardwood Mulch – www.peninsulahardwoodmulch.com – likes mahonias such as Winter Sun and Soft Caress.
“Winter Sun is a fabulous hybrid shrub adaptable from shade to sun,” says Hull.
“Each cane will sprout a large bright yellow bloom spike in winter, typically all December long. It is lightly fragrant and will also produce small green berries resembling grapes, which the birds eat.
“Soft Caress is a dwarf version of Winter Sun except the leaves are slender and are not thorny.”
Others he favors include:
▪ Distylium Blue Cascade. Distylium is a relatively new plant group. There are several varieties, some compact, some larger. Distyliums are very tough and have a spreading habit but dense. They are evergreen with small oval dark green leaves resembling fall camellias. Red blooms form all along the stems sometime in winter. Distylium seems to have no pest or pathogen problems, and is being touted as a good replacement for Indian Hawthorn and its leaf spot problems. Blue Cascade is a nice compact three foot by four foot type; it prefers sun but tolerates part shade.
▪ Witch Hazel, Hamamellis. Witch Hazel is extremely cold hardy, tolerating temperatures to minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It is so cold tolerant that if the weather is subfreezing the blooms will close back up and reopen the next day when the sun returns to warm the buds. Most Witch Hazels are considered large shrubs or small trees, reaching about 18 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Witch Hazels also provide outstanding fall foliage color, ranging from yellows and oranges to reds, and can be extremely striking. In Hampton Roads, they bloom in winter, typically in February. The fragrance is a delightful citrus aroma. Favorites include clear orange Jelena, yellow Sunburst a nice yellow, lavender Amethyst and red Diana.
▪ Sarcococca Sweetbox, Confusa. Sweetbox is a greatly underused shrub with small dark leaves on a compact, evergreen, rounded habit. Its blooms are somewhat insignificant, however the fragrance produced is plentiful. The blooms are white and open in February, sometimes earlier in mild winters. Sweetbox shrubs are natural in part shade but are adaptable to full sun. Confusa grows to about four feet wide and tall.
MIXING IT UP
In Hampton, Va., landscape designer Beverly Martin, believes winter interest in the garden calls for mixing it up.
“It involves planning a mix of evergreens in a variety of colors as well as deciduous plants that look good naked,” says Martin.
Her winter-time favorites include:
▪ Edgeworthia. It’s easy to grow in full sun or part shade, reaching about five feet tall. The leaf scars on the stems give it a unique look in winter as well as the silver buds on the branch tips that open to fragrant yellow flowers in February.
▪ Weeping redbud. The delicate weeping branches are beautiful when there is no foliage in winter – cold weather is also the best time to prune the plant because you can see the branch structure. In early spring, branches are covered with pink or lavender buds depending on the variety.
▪ Deciduous hollies. Sparkleberry is the best for winter interest, growing about 10 feet tall. The leafless branches are covered with bright red berries in winter and are stunning in a mass. The female hollies bear the berries and you need a pollinating male nearby. They will grow in sun or part shade and tolerate wet areas, making them a good choice for rain gardens as well. There are other cultivars in different sizes with orange and yellow berries; use them in flower arrangements and as food for songbirds.
Kathy Van Mullekom is the garden/home columnist for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. Follow her on Facebook@Kathy Hogan Van Mullekom, on Twitter @diggindirt and at Pinterest@digginin. Her blog can be read at Diggin@RoomandYard.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.