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Winter isn't always pretty here in the northland. Some days everything seems a dull shade of gray, while other days it's an eye-scorching white. And although there are plenty of plants that look good in late fall, it takes a very special plant to shine in January and February.
Evergreens often jump to the top of the list when it comes to "winter interest." Spruce, pines and firs hold onto their needles throughout the winter, which helps us remember what the color green looks like.
Although once popular, Colorado blue spruce isn't recommended much anymore. This admittedly attractive tree simply can't handle Minnesota's weather, so it tends to develop diseases and die after a couple decades. Better choices include black hills spruce, white pine and balsam fir. If you decide to plant one of these year-round lookers, be sure to keep them well away from the house. All of these trees can grow quite tall.
Evergreen shrubs are an excellent way to provide a winterproof accent closer to the house. With their light green foliage and red berries, yews are among the most popular and colorful evergreen shrubs. Small arborvitaes also can fill a space next to a house and offer some nice color.
As with evergreen trees, evergreen shrubs tend to do best when planted in the spring, though container-grown shrubs can be planted in fall, as long as they're watered regularly until the ground freezes. Most people like to give these shrubs a light shearing once a year or so to keep them in an attractive shape. Shearing is usually best done in the spring.
Fruit, twigs and bark
Attractive winter plants aren't limited to evergreens. Several small trees and shrubs hold their fruit over the winter, making them an attractive addition and a handy way to attract wildlife. Among them are the closely related snowberry and coralberry. Both are low-growing plants that have beautiful white-to-pink berries.
Many crabapples also hold their fruits over the winter, as do many dogwoods. And dogwoods, especially red twig dogwoods, are great choices for winter because of their red stems. Combining them with yellow twig dogwoods can produce a truly attractive display.
Paper birch and gray birch both look beautiful in the winter because of their whitish bark. (One note of caution: While many trees can be successfully planted in the fall, birches must be planted in the spring.)
Although they're often overlooked, many ornamental grasses look magnificent during winter. They also provide more color than most people think. Like shrubs, grasses require little maintenance.
Despite what you may think about our "other season," there is plenty of natural beauty in winter. By adding just a few plants, you can give your yard that little extra push it needs to look great all year.
Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota. He's also the author of three books, "How Trees Die," "The Truth About Garden Remedies" and "The Truth About Organic Gardening" (Timber Press, $12.95).