Landscaping for Winter Color
4 SEASON Garden Beds
Landscaping with winter color in mind
The end of the growing season is often a bittersweet experience for gardeners and landscapers. It signals the end of months of work — but also marks the end of the splendid time when each day offers up something new, from the bold bloom of a rhododendron to the subtle emergence of flower heads on ornamental grasses.
On the other hand however, I spend a lot of my time checking up on specific properties we have landscaped to see just how they are looking and how the plants are growing. These are landscapes specifically designed for “winter color”.
One example of a plant that provides winter interest is the Firethorn, Pyracantha, which is an evergreen plant that is easy to grow and provides seasonal interest and berries. Even the most novice gardener can handle the simple care of firethorn bush. With careful attention to selecting plants that provide visually arresting textures, colors, and movement, it’s possible to make winter a season of natural beauty. These plants might not make you love winter, but they might help you appreciate the season in a beautiful new way.
The late-autumn and winter gardens do have their charms, many trees, shrubs and perennials can be and in essence are much a part of any four season landscape design. Granted, common sense dictates a thorough fall garden cleanup, there do exist a number of plants that can be left standing, since even in their dormancy, they offer surprising delights for the discriminating eye. The condition, stature, and overall appearance of plants in the winter depend greatly on how healthy they were during the growing season. Plant species that were not fed and/or watered as required or were attacked by disease or insects will surely not make worthy winter specimens. But healthy, well-tended plants, sited in their preferred environments, can turn out to be the unexpected treasures of the winter garden.
Color in the landscape – blue
For gardeners partial to blue plants, there are two selections of ornamental grasses that hold their blue color well into winter. Elijah Blue blue fescue (Festuca ovina glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) is the bluest of the fescues and retains its compact form all season. Compact and versatile ornamental grass that may be used as an edging plant for borders or path, a ground cover for small areas, or as an accent in rock gardens and border fronts. Mixes well with other ornamental grasses.
Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) grows taller, at 2 to 3 feet, and its stiff blue foliage will remain a true blue until early spring, when it should be pruned to the ground like other ornamental grasses. Specimen for the border or rock garden. Mass for ground cover. Effective foundation plant as an accent or in conjunction with dwarf blue spruces or junipers. Blue foliage contrasts well with pink flowering perennials and many spring bulbs.
Color in the landscape – silver
Any plant with blue, silver, or gray foliage must be planted in full sun in very well-draining soil or it will develop rot at the crown or in the roots. The low-growing cottage pink Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Bath’s Pink’ has a strong reputation for resisting the “melting out” tendency of other silver-blue-foliaged plants. In spring, the pink fringed flowers complement the slender blue-to-silver foliage; in winter the blue foliage alone is the attraction. Artemisia stellerana ‘Silver Brocade’, the hardy dusty miller, features intense silver foliage in both summer and winter since it contrasts nicely with the bright green of boxwood or other smaller evergreens. Plant this lacy perennial where drainage is excellent.
Bright golden plants in winter are striking, especially when set against the darker foliage of plants with purple or green leaves. The creeping ground cover Veronica repens ‘Sunshine’ is a newer variety whose tiny mosslike leaves remain yellow all year. For a moist area, the golden sedge Carex elata ‘Bowles Golden’ will keep its color most of the winter. Its 2- to 3-foot arching golden leaves feature fine green margins.
Color in the landscape – burgundy & purple
Plants with dark purple or burgundy foliage work well in perennial borders because nearby flowering plants with blue, pink, lavender, or yellow flowers show them to advantage. The extremely popular Heuchera, or coral bells, offers new dark-leaved hybrids annually, some of which retain their mottled purple leaves year-round. ‘Plum Pudding’ is such a plant. Its leaves are glossy burgundy with silver lines in the summer. In winter, the color remains but the shine departs.
Grasses are key players in the late-fall and winter garden. The ones that retain their shape without collapsing under heavy snow loads or shattering their seed heads midwinter are especially valuable. Morning Light maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’), Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), and most of the fountain grasses (Pennisetum alopecuroides) are favorites for four-season interest.
Color in the landscape – exfoliating bark
Trees and large shrubs with exfoliating bark add visual interest all year long, but during winter, when branches are bare, is when exfoliating bark captures our attention. Peeling and curling bark, which often reveals a different color below, adds a sophisticated touch to any garden. For many plants, it takes a few years for this feature to develop. Plants with exfoliating bark include paperbark maple (Acer griseum), three-flowered maple (A. triflorum), Fox Valley river birch (Betula nigra ‘Little King’), cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconiodes), Kalm St. Johnswort (Hypericum kalmianum), lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana), and climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris).
Color in the landscape – colorful twigs & stems
One of the easiest ways to add high-impact winter interest is to plant en masse a large group of multi stemmed deciduous shrubs with colorful stems and twigs.
Plants to consider are bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), including the ‘Midwinter Fire’ and ‘Winter Beauty’ cultivated varieties; redosier dogwood (C. sericea); and yellow twig dogwood (C. s. ‘Budd’s Yellow’), which has yellowish stems. Another option is coral embers willow (Salix alba ‘Britzensis’). These plants can be planted separately or mixed together, for a tapestry of winter color. Regular pruning in late winter before new growth resumes keeps these plants vibrant. For the dogwoods, cut about a third of the oldest stems back to the ground to encourage new, more colorful stems. It is best to cut coral willow stems completely to the ground each year.
Wintertime Fruits, Berries and Cones
A popular way for adding winter interest to gardens is using plants with fruits, berries, or cones that persist through winter — or at least part of the winter, by hungry birds.Good plants to consider for their yellow and red fruits include the Donald Wyman, Jewelcole, and Winter Gold varieties of crabapple (Malus cvs.). For outstanding early winter berries, look to the chokeberries (Aronia spp.) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata). And evergreen conifers with interesting cones include Macedonian pine (Pinus peuce) and heavy cone Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Acrocona’). Callicarpa American (Beautyberry) is both an attractive addition to any landscape as well as a valuable source of food for many types of wildlife. Most of the time though, you’ll look at it and wonder why it’s name alludes to beauty? Then bam, fall arrives and this plant gets busy.
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