Masses of flame red tulips march across the lawn. Luscious pink peonies, velvety purple Siberian iris and celestial blue delphiniums co-mingle in the perennial garden. A colorful riot of orange zinnias, hot pink petunias, lime green sweet potato vines and red geraniums spill from a patio pot. Blame it on our short growing season -- Minnesota gardeners want color, color, color in their yards and gardens.
But the nongrowing season, better known as winter, occupies half the year here. What's a color-starved gardener to do? I usually recommend any plants that can provide brightly colored bark and persistent, showy fruit. And it's true that plants such as red-stemmed dogwood (Cornus sericea) and American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) provide welcome splashes of red against the winter landscape. But maybe the real way to survive the cold months is to develop a greater appreciation of winter's subtle beauties.
Silhouettes and seeds
This is the time to admire plants on the large scale and the small. In winter we can see the silhouettes of deciduous trees and shrubs, the majesty and intricacy of every branch revealed. It is an education in structural engineering to see the massive limbs of an oak jutting out nearly perpendicular to the ground, supported by the strength of the even more massive trunk. It's also a fun exercise to identify plants just by their branching structure, especially unique ones such as the horizontally tiered branches of pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). And, for the incurably practical gardener, winter affords the opportunity to see where some pruning is needed.
Small scale beauty is also out there for us to see, though it may require donning boots and warm clothes to get up close and personal. If you leave seed heads in the garden through winter you'll have interesting plant structures to look at and provide a food source for birds. The spiky heads of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) remain all winter, often wearing fashionable caps of snow. If you grow hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens, H. paniculata), leave the flowers on as they dry in the fall. In winter, examine the leathery, tan florets, thin as tissue paper, revealing a delicate network of veins in each petal.
Even the buds of some plants are admirable. The star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) in my front yard is loaded with fat flower buds, each silky, pale greenish-silver nub harboring the promise of a large, fragrant, creamy white flower. I also admire the plump, pointed buds of deciduous azaleas, knowing that each shingled bud scale will open and eventually expand to produce a domed cluster of flowers the size of a softball. And in late winter, the flower bud-laden stems of spring bloomers such as forsythia can be cut and forced indoors for some early color.
Bark is another thing to appreciate in winter. The bark of some plants is quite noticeable -- those bright red dogwood stems, the coppery sheen of Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii) bark, or chalk white paper birch (Betula papyrifera) trunks against a cold azure sky. But look also for the pattern and detail in the more mundane gray-brown bark that clads many trees. Feel the corky, deeply furrowed bark of bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), so thick that it protects the tree from grass fires in its native prairie savannas. Notice the regular diamond pattern on a white ash (Fraxinus americana) trunk, or the distinctive warty protrusions of hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) bark.
We may curse winter precipitation while navigating roadways, but snow and frost can turn our yards into winter wonderlands. All those wonderful branching patterns in trees and shrubs are enhanced when highlighted by a dusting of fresh snow. And one of winter's most magical experiences is waking to a world coated with hoarfrost, that thick rime of lacy crystals that ices every twig and needle. On those perfect frosty mornings, bundle up, grab a camera and maybe a magnifying glass and appreciate that ephemeral beauty.
Phases of winter
I admit that appreciating subtle beauty is easier to do in early to mid-winter, when memories of mosquito bites, fungal blights and tangled hoses are fresh in the gardener's mind. Many of us will admit that there's a certain relief when the big killing frost finally arrives, the ground freezes and you simply can't work in the garden anymore. For several months thereafter it's easy to appreciate subtleties such as the angle of a branch or a fuzzy bud. Of course, by late February or early March that craving for color and the smell of damp soil may require a therapeutic trip to a warm, flower-filled conservatory (or better yet, Hawaii). Life and gardening have cycles, and soon enough bright colors will once again fill our gardens. But for now relax, go play in the snow, and marvel at the crisp shadows of branches on snow some moonlit winter night.
Nancy Rose is a horticulturist, writer and photographer. To ask her a gardening question, call 612-673-9073 and leave a message. She will answer questions in this column only.