Upper Midwest gardeners know the preciousness of growing things. They typically have five to seven months to cram in as much green and growing things as they can. A well-planned landscape can ensure that beyond the prime growing season, landscapes are filled with beautiful flowers, leaves, bark and structure.
Trees, shrubs and perennials with multiple seasons of interest are essential in northern gardens to provide drama, contrast and focal points throughout the year. Including the following plants in your landscape are paths to colorful falls, frosty winter vignettes and peeks at beauty to come in early spring.
Autumn Brilliance Serviceberry
(Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’) (Zones 4-9)
This understory tree is a year-round performer, starting with its beautiful cylindrical buds, followed by racemes of white flowers. Red berries, 1/4-to 1/3-inch diameter, not only delight birds, but are also known as a pioneer staple for jams and pies. If you plan to use the berries, you’ll have to time your harvest to beat the birds. The medium green leaves color to brilliant red in the fall, leaving the vase-like architecture and smooth grey bark for winter interest. Full or part sun is suitable.
(Malus x ‘Prairifire’) (Zones 4-8)
Although the choices of attractive crabapple trees seem endless, ‘Prairifire’ crabapple is a reliable selection due to its resistance to apple scab disease and its persistent red fruit that shines through the winter. Birds will clean off the bright berries when they migrate in spring. Add to that its attractive foliage, with a blush of purple on the underside, and its dark burgundy bark, and you have an easy-to-grow tree that has beauty all year. The flowers are dark pink in bud, opening to a light pink blush. Topping out at 15 to 20 feet, this crabapple is great as a focal point or as a boulevard planting. Full sun provides the best fall coloration, leading to its ‘fiery’ name.
|One of the best features of ‘Prairifire’ crabapple (Malus x ‘Prairifire’) is its persistent, bright red fruit. The fruit will be picked clean in the spring, often by robins or Bohemian waxwings.1|
‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ Limber Pine
(Pinus flexilis) (Zones 2-7)
Evergreens with snow-laden branches can be an awesome accent to winter landscapes, as well as providing a foil for flowering plants during summer. ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ limber pine is a slow-growing tree, topping out at 25 feet and ideal for an intermixed border or specimen tree. The needles are a stunning blue green and sometimes slightly twisted. The densely bunched needles, neat pyramidal shape and its reputation for adaptability to tough conditions make this pine suitable throughout Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Best in full sun and soil with good drainage.
Redtwig and Yellowtwig Red Osier Dogwood
(Cornus sericea and C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’) (Zones 2-8)
The 7- to 9-foot Red Osier dogwood offers all one could want in a four-season plant—stunning stem color (red or yellow), attractive white blooms in early summer, clumps of white fruit attractive to birds and clean green foliage turning reddish purple in fall. The ‘Flaviramea’ cultivar has yellow stems. Both varieties benefit from pruning older, often cankered and discolored, stems to maximize color intensity. This dogwood can also withstand moist conditions, although it is adaptable to a variety of soils. Full to partial sun is best.
|Red Osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is in full glory in winter. As temperatures cool, the stems intensify their red coloration. Pruning discolored, cankered stems will help keep the plant healthy and colorful.2|
(Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Monlo’) (Zones 2-7)
Colored foliage is always a plus in the summer landscape and Diabolo® ninebark steps up in spades with its dark burgundy, almost black, leaves. Spring brings white or pinkish 1/4-to-1/3-inch balls, called corymbs. Bright red fruit follows and, if the shrub is left untrimmed, will darken to nearly jet black. The ninebarks can be sizeable, 6 to 12 foot tall, so providing adequate space is important. If left intact, the bark on mature stems eventually develope beautiful dark and light brown exfoliations, offering excellent winter interest. Diabolo® ninebark tolerates full or part sun.
(Microbiota decussata) (Zones 3-7)
Subtlety is also an asset in the landscape, and Russian cypress is a low (1 foot high) and spreading (6 feet wide) evergreen ground cover that provides a tough background for showier plants in summer. When cool weather begins in fall, the bright green foliage will move toward a burgundy green, which puts on an attractive show winter. Well-drained sites full to part sun are best for this evergreen shrub.
|Russian cypress (Microbiota decussata) is a sturdy evergreen ground cover that turns a purplish brown during winter months.1|
(Sedum rupestre) (Zones 3-9)
When it comes to a colorful, durable ground cover that serves all year, nothing compares to ‘Angelina’ stonecrop. The brilliant chartreuse foliage tops out at about 6 inches. The feathery, spiky leaflets are succulent, but the texture overall is fine. ‘Angelina’ is drought resistant and evergreen, taking on a pinkish orange tinge when temperatures turn cold. There’s nothing better than seeing this bright performer peeking out as the snows recede in spring. Full to partial sun is best for this sedum.
|The bright hues of ‘Angelina’ sedum (S. rupestre) is lovely all year round. As cool temperatures descend, pink and orange highlights appear, increasing the sturdy ground cover’s interest.1|
Giant Sea Holly
(Eryngium giganteum) (Zones 3-9)
Giant sea holly, sometimes called Miss Willmott’s ghost, steals the show as a textural focal point, with its spiky blooms and eerie gray-green foliage on plants that reach 30 to 35 inches tall. Growing as a biennial, the plant will reseed, but is usually well behaved, and it won’t become a problem child. Although the frosty hue is surprising in the summer garden, snow and frost on the foliage offer extra interest during winter months. Named after a mythical English plantswoman, it was believed Miss Willmott sowed the plant in gardens she visited. Giant sea holly tolerates acid to alkaline soils and a breadth of soil conditions. Grow in full sun.
|Giant sea holly offers in spiky interest summer, fall and winter. The 30 to 36 inch tall plant is a ghostly contrast to darker greens during warmer months, and offers an interesting structure for snow and frost to decorate during winter months.1|
Blue False Indigo
(Baptisia australis) (Zones 2-9)
False indigo is a native legume growing to about 4 feet tall with blue, pea-like blooms and gray-green foliage that stays clean all summer. Bloom is in late spring and flowers can be cut for arrangements. The 4-to-6-inch pods, that form after the blooms turn dark over the summer, are an attractive accent in the winter landscape, often rattling in the wind. A number of hybrids have been developed, but none has the northern range of the native B. australis. This is an easy-care plant that likes full sun.
1. Photo courtesy of Horticopia photos
2. Photo courtesy of Dreamstime photos.
From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2013