HomeZone: How to breathe life into a dead-of-winter garden

  • Article by: NANCY ROSE
  • Updated: February 6, 2002 - 10:00 PM

Examples of winter display found at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhasen. Leaving the flower heads on this hydrangea shrub contributes winter interest.

Photo: Charles Bjorgen, Star Tribune File Photo

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Dingy white. Gray. Beige. Is this the dull color palette that greets you when you gaze out on your yard in winter? Does the lack of color and texture in your landscape make you think that hibernation is not such a bad idea? With some thoughtful planning and plant selection, you can wake up your winter landscape.

Plants, shrubs and trees can provide winter interest in many ways. Colorful fruit can add cheerful ornamentation to trees and shrubs. Seed heads in shades of brown can add texture, structure and visual interest. Stems and bark can provide color, sheen or textural accents.

Our long leafless season also gives us the opportunity to observe the branching patterns of deciduous plants, and the intricate fretwork of snow-dusted branches can be beautiful. And, of course, what would the winter landscape be without the pleasing color and substance of evergreens?

Berry colorful

As every fashion maven knows, a dash of color adds pizazz to any color scheme. Red fruit makes a particularly striking accent in a winter landscape dominated by white snow and neutral shades of gray and brown. Fortunately, there are several excellent shrubs and small trees that provide bright red fruit that lasts through the winter.

One of the best is American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum, also known as highbush cranberry). This large, hardy shrub bears clusters of fruit that start turning red in early fall and persist all winter. The fruits are edible but have a slightly acrid aftertaste. Perhaps this is why birds ignore the fruit until spring, when it softens and ferments a bit.

Flowering crab apples can be a great source of colorful fruit, but only if you select the right cultivars. While all crab apple cultivars look lovely when they are in bloom, not all of them have colorful, persistent fruit. Some older cultivars are notorious for having overly large, messy fruit that ripens and falls in late summer, but there are plenty of wonderful cultivars that are festooned with small, brightly colored fruit through most of the snowy season. 'Donald Wyman' wins the award for most persistent fruit -- many of its bright red, three-eighths of an inch fruits are still present when the tree blooms in May.

Showy seed heads

Many shrubs, perennial flowers and ornamental grasses provide winter interest in the form of dried flowers and seed heads. While the color range is limited to browns, tans and off-whites, these flowers and seed heads add texture to yards and gardens, and are often especially attractive when capped with new fallen snow.

Noted for hardiness and white summer flowers, both smooth and panicled hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens, H. paniculata) leave clusters of papery florets decorating their stems into the winter.

The seed heads of many perennial flowers also can be left in the garden to provide winter interest as well as seeds for small birds. The bold brown domes of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and the sturdy flat plates of sedum (Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy' and other cultivars) are two of my favorites. And many cultivars of the ornamental grass Miscanthus display airy whitish seed plumes that catch the low-angled winter sunlight. These soft seed heads are spectacular when combined with evergreens and plants with colorful fruit.

Beauty and the bark

Although it's often overlooked the rest of the year, bark is much more noticeable in the winter. So it's worth seeking out some shrubs and trees with attractive stems and trunks. Brightly colored bark stands out in the winter landscape and, luckily for us, one of the most colorfully clad shrubs available is also one of the easiest to grow. This shrub is red-stemmed dogwood (Cornus sericea), a 6-to 8-foot tall shrub that is hardy to minus 40 degrees or lower.

The cultivar 'Cardinal,' a University of Minnesota introduction, is noted for having cherry red stems. There are also several shrub dogwoods that have brilliant yellow stems rather than red. You'll get a more colorful plant from any of the dogwoods if you remember to prune out some of the oldest stems each year. This encourages the growth of new stems, which show the most color in winter.

Trees with shiny or curly bark also look intriguing. For shiny bark, nothing beats Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii), a 15-to 25-foot tall tree with gorgeous copper colored bark. This chokecherry is cold-hardy and, in fact, grows better in colder climates than in the steamy South. River birch (Betula nigra), a native tree, has masses of shaggy, peeling bark in shades of cream, tan and pinkish orange. River birch prefers evenly moist soil that is slightly acidic.

Branching out

It's easy to see how plants with screaming red fruit or stems add to the winter landscape, but the discerning gardener can also appreciate subtler traits such as intriguing branching habits.

Plants with horizontal, tiered branches such as pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) or interlacing branches such as those seen in a patch of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) provide pleasing architectural patterns, especially when outlined with a fresh sifting of snow.

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