Your Winter Landscape

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Look out your window. What do you see? Yes there is still snow on the ground. Don’t worry, it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day, the traditional date we eagerly await as a marker of the change of winter to almost spring. I say almost, especially this year since the cold weather seems to be undecided, swinging repeatedly between March and January and back again. With March 20th being the official calendar date of spring, the weather promises to change soon. But right now, before winter ends and the trees and shrubs awaken, before daffodils pop their pretty heads up from their long sleep, take a good look at your winter garden. Do you find your winter landscape appealing enough? Really pay attention to details. Refocus your eyes and observe nature’s beauty.

If you grew coneflowers you may have dried seed heads left over and witnessed finches feeding on the seeds, adding charm to the winter scene. Ornamental grasses like Miscanthus can also add shape and sound as they rustle in the wind. Further interest is added by the texture and contrast of deciduous and evergreen plants. These are the details to look at. There really is beauty to see in the winter garden!

When I was working on Community Gardens in the city, some sites included schools. One of these sites was an art studio. Many students attended this art school through the winter months. There were a great many windows overlooking the side yard. It made sense to focus on a winter garden. Bare trees and shrubs add structure and architecture to the landscape. My very first thought for this school was a corkscrew willow. These trees have very interesting ‘twisty branches’ that seemed perfect for a winter garden and would be fun to sketch. However this variety of willow requires lots of water and would eventually grow 30 ft tall. Do your research. This specimen would not be a good choice for a side yard in the city with buildings so close.

But the same effect can be obtained with other plant varieties. I was going for “twisty or gnarled’ branches and ‘Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick’ (Corylus contorta) was the perfect substitution. Nothing else looks like Harry Lauder’s Walking stick with it’s’ tangle of corkscrewed branches making it a great specimen to sketch. And this shrub is just begging to be cut for fascinating indoor arrangements as well. In winter, when the leaves drop, this tree really shines in spooky silhouette-just right for Halloween. Height for this shrub is 8 to 10 feet with an 8 to 10 foot spread and more appropriate for a smaller area (requires full sun to partial shade).

To see what strikes you’re fancy and to help you choose specimens for your yard for winter interest, now would be a good time to visit a nursery or public garden before spring begins. Remember to call first to be sure that the location is open and that the shrub and tree sections are accessible. Purchasing and planting can then be done in the later spring.

Other examples of fascinating branch and bark structure are:

– Japanese maples, which possess green and red leafless branches that add winter interest. The canopy can look like a bonsai tree. Full sun to partial shade with regular watering provide for this slow-growing shrub or mini tree. This one is a favorite of mine for all seasons.

– Tatarian dogwoods have small, fragrant, creamy white flowers with bluish to whitish small fruits. The blood-red twigs in winter are colorful against white snow. Many varieties of dogwood have winter interest, especially those that have red berries. All require full sun to light shade.

– Birch trees have interesting structure and fascinating bark, especially Red River Birch trees. The bark is white to salmon in color and very interesting as it peels, then turns a dark red/brown when it ages.

-Evergreens, lastly in this group and generally the strong “backbones” of our gardens. Conifers are beautiful when covered with a blanket of snow. Slow-growing or dwarf conifers mix well with shrubs, grasses, annuals and perennials and, when it comes to the colder winter months, they remain in their familiar form. There is such a variety of species and cultivars that most are rated on their rate of growth and ultimate width and height. Depending on the needs of your garden design, firs, junipers, spruces, pines, yews, arborvitae or hemlocks may be considered.

The unexpected- flowers and berries:

-Hellebores (Helleboras niger) can add the touch of the unexpected. An alpine plant that can possibly bloom anywhere from November to June with white flowers that turn pink with age.

-Snowdrops often pop up through a layer of snow long before the crocuses. The small white bell-shaped flowers are suspended from short delicate stems and, depending on variety, can reach 6 to 10 inches tall.

-Evergreen Holly (Ilex) with red berries amongst distinctively shaped leaves of shiny green are a bright spot in any winter garden.

-Winterberry is a deciduous holly shrub with very small white flowers. The fruit is red and berry-like growing on short stalks which are extremely showy in early winter.

-Viburnum can also fall into this category with attractive fruit and outstanding fall foliage. Many produce berries that are blue in color.

When you include winter plants that attract birds to your landscape, the birds themselves can be decorative, either perched on your fence or providing ornamental interest to your bare trees. This brings me to include adding bird feeders to the garden for winter interest. Whether you attract birds or squirrels, they are sure to provide entertainment as well. Birds are a welcome addition to my garden anytime of year.