The Forgotten Season

By Stephanie Knipper

Winter is often a neglected season in the garden. In our zones, most plants are dormant, we're not outside as much, and, let's face it, it's cold! There are so many reasons to stay inside and curl up with your favorite gardening books (or magazine!) and dream of next year's garden. However, we don't have to write off winter as lost time. We just need to reshape how we think about gardening in winter.

Structure and texture play more of a role in the winter garden than in any other season. In spring, summer and fall, everything is in bloom. There's always something to see, touch or smell. In contrast, winter's starkness and simplicity can seem overwhelming. I think that's why so many of us give up and wait for spring, making winter the forgotten season. It doesn't have to be this way. The key to gardening in winter is to look beyond flowers to some of the forgotten garden design elements.

There are four things to think about when selecting plants to add interest to your garden in winter. If you incorporate some of these elements, rather than waiting for spring, you'll be waiting for your garden's next surprise!

Form is probably one of the most important aspects of winter gardening. What is the basic shape of the plant when the leaves and flowers are gone? Is it upright or weeping? Do its limbs stretch to the side or do they twist and curl? Is it conical or rounded? You get the idea.

One of the most interesting shrubs for the winter landscape is Corylus avellana 'Contorta', or Harry Lauder's walking stick. This shrub is definitely at its best when its branches are stripped bare. That's when its unbelievably twisted branches are on display. Plant this shrub in your garden and I guarantee people will stop and ask you what it is.

Ornamental grasses and other perennials should also be included when talking about plant form. Leave the dried flowers on your hydrangeas and the cone heads on rudbeckias. Don't cut your ornamental grass back; instead, let the plumes stand tall against the winter sky.

Not every plant loses its leaves when the weather turns cold. Evergreens provide much needed color when the landscape is at its bleakest. Often overlooked when the garden is overwhelmed with color in other seasons, evergreens take center stage in the winter garden.

Although we often think only of trees and shrubs when we talk about evergreens, those are not our only options. Some wonderful perennials and ground covers are evergreen or semi-evergreen. Phlox subulata (creeping phlox) and Ajuga (bugleweed) are wonderful evergreen ground covers. Hedera helix (English ivy) and Jasminum nudiflorum (winter jasmine) are generally evergreen (although winter jasmine may lose its leaves, it retains its green stems) and can be used as vines or as groundcover.

Obviously, without leaves on our trees and shrubs, the bark is exposed. Too often we see bark as only utilitarian - it protects the tree or shrub and that's it. We forget that bark can be beautiful, providing months of interest in our gardens. Exfoliating bark can be especially interesting. As it peels away revealing other layers, trees and shrubs with exfoliating bark display a tapestry of colors.

Lagerstroemia indica (crapemyrtle) is one of my favorite plants for adding interest to the garden year round. We are most familiar with its showy summer flowers, but in winter crapemyrtles display a beautiful exfoliating bark. In addition, these plants can be pruned into an upright shape, adding a sculptural element to the landscape.

Another shrub with beautiful bark is Cornus sericea (redtwig dogwood). An upright shrub, when this bush looses its green foliage it reveals bright red bark, a perfect accent for the winter garden.

Winter is the time that berries shine! There's nothing like a splash of red against white snow or gray skies to lift your mood. Berries provide another benefit as well - they not only brighten your landscape, but also provide needed food for birds and other animals.

If you want a tree that is covered with bright red berries throughout the winter months, consider adding Crataegus viridis 'Winter King' (green hawthorn) to your landscape. Red berries coat the branches of this tree, beginning in late September or early October and continuing through the winter months. An added benefit is the white flowers that bloom in spring.

As you can see, there are several ways to bring interest to your garden in winter. It just takes looking at things in a different way, and the rewards are great. Planning a garden for the fourth season will make counting the time until spring that much easier!

Stephanie Knipper lives in Independence, Ky., with her husband and four children. When she's not busy with them, she spends her time gardening and writing.


November Articles:

The Forgotten Season
Living Wreaths
Sargent Crabapple
Forcing Bulbs
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