As the days grow shorter and the growing season draws to a close, it’s time to think about the winter garden.

Winter garden? Is there really such a thing?

Yes, said Scott Endres, an owner and cofounder of Tangletown Gardens in south Minneapolis. In fact, winter is one of his favorite seasons. “It’s a beautiful time,” he said. “We should accentuate the idea of winter as an important time of the year.

“For those of us in the north, it’s a long season. You want to look out at a landscape that’s as fabulous and interesting as possible.”

Among the plants that light up the subdued months are so-called “chameleon plants” that change color with the seasons. Many of those plants are blue- or gold-hued junipers that in cold weather grow brighter or even color-shift from blue to purple, gold to near orange or green or yellow to bronze.

Observant Minnesotans have long looked for plants that have value in winter landscapes, Endres noted. “It’s something we’ve appreciated forever, the shades of greens and bronzes, gray, sand, chartreuses and golds,” he said. “You also have to look at nuance. … Grays and browns and whites set off nicely with other colors.”

Ornamental grasses are a mainstay of the winter garden.

By the time the snow flies, most have faded to buff or brown. Stiff-leaved grasses such as switchgrass, moor grass, some miscanthus and reed grasses such as Karl Foerster remain upright all winter, standing tall even after being weighed down with snow. They add life and interest even in the coldest months, swaying and rustling in the wind.

Perennials with stiff seed heads, such as black-eyed Susans and coneflowers, provide an interesting spiny structure to a dormant garden, and attract birds and other wildlife that like the seeds.

For more of a statement, Endres looks to trees such as mountain ash, viburnums and crabapples that have persistent orange, red, yellow and blue fruit. Stripped of their leaves, trees such as bur oak show off their heavily textured shaggy bark in winter. Red oaks add an accent by hanging onto their russet leaves until late winter or spring.

Shrubs such as dogwoods reveal their bright red, maroon or yellow stems in winter, providing an exclamation point in the landscape even when their leaves are gone. Weeping small trees such as mulberries or some crabapples don’t fully show their true form until they lose their leaves in fall to expose their drooping branches.

“We go from the greens of summer to the russets, crimsons and vermilions of fall to the winter landscape,” Endres said. “We think of it as white or brown, but it can be quite beautiful. It’s a restful time for the garden and gardeners, so it’s OK to have a subtle color palette.”

Hue and form

Evergreens provide structure and accent to the garden year-round, but their colors may be most noticeable in winter. Skyrocket junipers are tall and narrow with powder blue foliage that intensifies in winter. Medora is another tough, slightly wider juniper with gray-blue needles that jump out in the winter landscape.

Gold junipers sometimes turn a darker gold or near orange, Endres said. “Some people think that looks like winter browning, but it’s not, it’s just reaching for a copper tone.”

Sunkist arborvitae is a shorter lemon-colored evergreen that turns a darker gold in winter. It has reddish exfoliating bark on older stems that may be visible in winter. Gold Strike creeping juniper is a low-growing evergreen that looks almost variegated in summer with chartreuse and yellow needles, deepening to gold in winter.

Plants don’t have to be big to provide winter interest. Ground-hugging fleshy perennial bergenias and their relative, mukgenia, keep their leaves over the winter and provide a surprise if snow melts with their reddish or bronze fall coloring still showing.

“As a passionate gardener, my favorite seasons are opposites,” Endres said. “Winter is a beautiful time for reflection and balance; you know the garden is tucked away and dormant. Summer is the opposite, actively growing, with a sense of life and abundance. I love the contrast between the two.

“We’re lucky to have four distinct, beautiful seasons here. As gardeners in the north, we make the best of it. That’s why our gardens in general are so much more beautiful and intense and well-tended than gardens in other more temperate climates. We don’t get tired of our gardens. … After a winter of yearning for color, we’re rewarded with it.”


Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer, a Hennepin County master gardener and a tree care adviser.