Winter signals a season of discontent for many gardeners. Fading sunlight, falling temperatures and frequent days of continuous rain diminish the appeal of working in the garden. Take heart, the first killing frost does not have to eliminate your gardening spirit. Despite a lack of blooms in winter, your garden can still be exciting. Weather permitting, the garden is still worth exploring.
We might take evergreens for granted the rest of the year but in winter we should admire and appreciate their hardy constitutions, strong coloration and abundant textures. Once cold weather has stripped deciduous plants to the bone, the distinct needles of spruce, yew, juniper, and arborvitae stand out strong against a winter backdrop.
On the rare occasion when snow falls in lower elevations, needled evergreens define the look of winter, bearing a dusting of white snow with aplomb. Broadleaf evergreens such as the classic winter hollies (Ilex aquifolium), rhododendrons and aucubas, also called spotted laurel, bring the green of life to a winter-weary garden. All are seasonally festive under a light snowfall.
Hollies, with their holiday connection, are perhaps the best-known berry bearing shrub of winter. Many other trees and shrubs produce colorful fruit ranging from yellow, orange, and bright red to deep pink, blue, and black. Good candidates include firethorn (Pyracantha), Japanese barberry, viburnum, including the high-bush cranberry and the deep purple-black berries of David's viburnum
Aucubas, even those planted in shade, have decorative oblong berries. Many trees, including the European mountain ash and crabapple carry berries through winter, drawing an assortment of birds to the garden. In addition to berries, the hollies sport an array of foliage shape and color. Even the deciduous holly, with winter branches as bare as weathered bones, hosts a profusion of bright red berries.
One of my favorite hedge plants is the Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata), which looks more like boxwood than a winter holly. The small, round leaves are very similar on both plants but the Japanese holly must be pruned more often to maintain a tight, uniform shape. Both shrubs can be used as formal accents in a winter garden.
Since my garden sits at a higher elevation than most in the Vancouver area, I have had issues with winter die-back on my boxwood shrubs. This damage is manifested as areas of brown foliage that dies back to the lower stems. Japanese holly can also be affected by severe cold. Both plants can be pruned back to live wood in spring. New growth will fill in quickly during the next growing season.
In Southwest Washington it's often true that we don't see the forest for the trees. Evergreens are such a solid part of our gardens that we occasionally forget the impact they have. We are called the Evergreen State for good reason. From the vast selection of conifers available to us today, we can fill any size garden with a solid base of year-round plant form and color.
Garden art, statues, and other ornamentation are quick fixes for a lack of garden charisma. When possible, stick with natural or natural-looking materials with a timeless design. Wooden and iron benches are especially attractive in winter. Stone urns on either side of a pathway entrance set the stage for a garden transition. If you have bird baths in the garden, keep them clean and filled with fresh water.
Deciduous trees, large and small, are prime sources of winter allure. The silhouette of leafless limbs and branches in addition to colorful, textural bark, adds a worthy decorative presence in winter. Several trees and shrubs stand out in winter for colorful or peeling bark, including redtwig and yellowtwig dogwoods, Amur cherry (Prunus maackii), river birch (Betula nigra), and paperbark maple (Acer griseum).
Once perennial plants have died back, the paths that wind in and around your garden remain. You may not feel motivated to keep them clear of ice and snow, but designing your paths for winter visibility keeps the gardening flame alive through winter's darkest days. Choose a surface with some color and texture, whether it's brick, pea gravel, cedar bark or flagstones.
Clean up pathways and give them a fresh surface layer now or in late winter. When not covered in snow, your paths will reveal the flow of your garden. Even if it does snow, raised edgings such as bricks, rocks, and landscape timbers help keep the outlines of the paths visible. All of these plants and features help to draw us out and into the winter garden. All offer the promise of winter charm.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.