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Notes from a winter garden

Serome Hamlin

As the daylight fades and the temperatures drop most gardeners, along with me, prepare for the season ahead. But have you thought about what can be added to our gardens to provide interest through the long winter months? If you think a little outside of the box, you can find many plants that will make you happy to see your garden while most things are taking a nap.

Since winter blooming plants are very limited, you must think mostly about the structure. Here are a few tips from my notebook when thinking about your winter garden. Some of these plants I have, and others I would love to have.

Start by looking for trees and shrubs that are evergreen, have exfoliating bark or beautiful branch structures — or perennials with nice seed heads on strong stems that can stay and add some interest. And of course, a few things can provide blooms for you to enjoy.

First let’s think about something that can provide blooms. What I consider the queen of the winter garden is helleborus, Helleborus orientalis. This plant not only provides nice evergreen foliage for the part-shade areas, but it also blooms at a time of year when most things have put on the brakes. They can come in many colors from greens, reds, pinks, purples, whites and yellows. Through breeding many varieties are now available with upward-facing blooms, instead of the downward-facing ones known to most people. You also can find different flower forms from single through double.

Shrubs you can consider could include Daphne odora Aureo-marginata. With evergreen variegated foliage, winter daphne has very fragrant blossoms in the late winter. Maybe you will find space for Edgeworthia chysantha, Japanese paperbush. Now this neat shrub boosts white/yellow fragrant blooms on bare 4-5 foot stems. If you have space for something taller, consider an American native witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana. Growing 10-20 feet tall and wide, you can find blooms in ranges of yellows, red and oranges.

Edgeworthia chysantha or Japanese paperbush

When it comes to evergreens, there are so many plants to choose from, but there’s more outside of the world of boxwoods and hollies. Check out the many varieties of conifers. Conifers can provide beautiful texture to the garden and look picture perfect during a light snow. A conifer that can find a place in just about any garden is Thuja ‘Golden Globe’. This arborvitae, growing about 3-by-3 feet, has beautiful gold foliage that intensifies in the cooler weather. Some other conifers include Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Glauca Pendula’, Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’ Thuja occidentalis Fire Chief, Pinus strobus ‘Nana’ and Podocarpus x ‘County Park Fire’ with its purple foliage in the winter.

Now last in my notebook of winter interest are plants with interesting bark/branch structure and perennials with eye-catching seed heads. When thinking about plant material that has bark for interest, I love things such as our native oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia. You can find this shrub in growth sizes from 2-by-3 feet from Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee' to the 8-to-10-footers you will get from Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Alice’.

In the winter months, you will notice the beautiful exfoliating bark. And you can leave its flower heads for an extra show. Have more space? Think about Acer griseum, paperbark maple, again with exfoliating bark. There are also trees and shrubs that give its interest from bark color such as Swida stolonifera 'Arctic Fire’. With its bright red stems, this red twig dogwood can really stand out in the winter garden. Imagine having this red stand out in a nice snow-covered landscape. Remember you get nicer color on newer stems, so you will want to cut it back every few years. Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’, coral bark maple, stands in two categories. Like most Japanese maples you will get a nice branch structure, but picture it with vibrant coral/ red bark in the cold season. While it only grows 8 to 10 feet, this tree can fit in many gardens and be grown in a large container. For branch structure outside of Japanese maples, one of my favorite plants is Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, Harry Lauder’s walking stick. Now this shrub has very contorted branches — making it look like it belongs in a fairy tale. In late winter you will start to notice the yellowish-brown catkins hanging on this 10-foot shrub like ornaments are really beautiful in the snow.

When it comes to perennial seed heads, not everything will stand up in heavy snow. But I have noticed a few things in my garden that will, and one plant that always keeps standing is Echinacea. Serving double duty, the seeds of coneflower also feed the birds through the winter. But one of my favorites has to be Aruncus dioicus, goatsbeard. After losing its foliage this plant turns a rusty brown and the arching seed heads on its sturdy 3-foot stems stand out.

I hope that with these suggestions from my notebook you will take some time to think about adding more plants to your garden just for winter interest. If you have limited space or budget, start adding a little at a time. Pick a window where you can look out into your garden and add things for you to enjoy during those days when walking around outside is uncomfortable.

So, let's get out there and get your hands dirty, add plants for winter interest to create a four-season garden.