The Winter Garden

Now that there is a light layer of snow on the ground, and the gardens have been closed down for their long naps, gardeners can all relax a little bit, not worrying about watering or the deer eating the prize hostas. Winter is an excellent time to both plan new beds and appreciate what is already there. The garden becomes a very different place in the winter months; when the ‘bones’ of the garden are more visible, it is easier to appreciate the form and beauty of each individual plant without its bright flowers or unique foliage.

Texture, Color, and Form are three characteristics that should be considered in planning any garden, but especially for winter interest. Both evergreens and deciduous plants have much to offer in all three of these categories, and the deciduous are more often overlooked. The interest in a deciduous plant for most people is during the summer, when colorful leaves or blossoms adorn the branches, but the same plants in winter are frequently just as beautiful.

Texture comes in the form of groupings of plants, rather than the plants themselves. Grasses, with their long, feathery seed plumes soften edges and attract the eye, and wave in the softest breeze. Plants like the Dwarf Arctic Willow are fine-textured and also help to smooth rough corners of the garden. A group of grasses or these fine willows waving in the breeze can evoke images of gently rolling waves or prairie. Many plants like Ninebark and Paperbark Maple have exfoliating bark that can soften the look of a coarser, stiffer plant.

Color is added to the winter garden not only by fruits and berries, left from fall and waiting to be devoured by all manner of wildlife, but also by the bark of many different trees and shrubs. Our native red and yellow twigged dogwoods are the most distinctively colored shrubs in the Maine winter landscape. Varying shades of red, orange, and yellow, sometimes on the same plant for varieties like ‘Winter Flame’ create a beautiful splash of color against white snow. Trees can have nice distinctive bark as well; the London Planetree and Korean Stewartia sport flaking, peeling bark that comes off in patches, revealing cream, green, gray, and brown patches underneath.

Form and structure come from the more unique and interesting shaped plant materials. Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, or Contorted Filbert, is a fascinatingly twisted and curled shrub or small tree, and is absolutely stunning with a light dusting of snow. Curly Willow is another, somewhat less well-known tree with the same sort of twisted branching habit, and both are definitely a unique addition to any garden. Japanese Maples are another family of plants that have some very intresting branching structures and make excellent focal points for any time of the year.

There are many overlaps between the three characteristics as well. Both the Curly and the Dwarf Arctic Willows have red branch tips in addition to their other attributes, and the colored stems of Red Twig Dogwoods are a strong, upright accent to any garden bed. As with nearly all things, variety is much better than a large group of identical items. A garden full of fine textured, brown shrubs is very boring, especially when it’s all alone in a sea of white. A colorful, interesting winter garden will make the long, cold winter months fly by.