University of Illinois Extension

The Garden in Winter

With a little planning, the winter garden can be a place of beauty, says Sharon Yiesla, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

berries“Midwestern gardeners revel in the change of seasons. Bright tulips and daffodils herald the coming of spring,” said Yiesla. “Summer brings in numerous flowering plants to enhance the appearance of the garden. Autumn comes with a new palette of colors ranging from bright reds to more subtle tones.

“Then winter comes and gardeners ‘put the garden to bed’ and they go inside until spring. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Before planning a winter garden, Yiesla noted it is important to remember that the beauty of winter is very different than the beauty seen in the garden during the growing season.

“The growing season gives a wide range of colors against a background of green leaves,” she said. “The beauty of winter is more subtle.

“In winter, shades of tan and buff often dominate, with bright spots of color coming from berries and colored stems. Part of the winter garden’s beauty comes from the shapes of plants. Ornamental grasses add structure to the winter garden and various trees and shrubs add beauty with the arrangement of their bare branches--a beauty that is often enhanced by a coating of snow.”

There are some other benefits to planning for the winter season. Some of the plants that give beauty in winter serve as food sources for birds and animals. Of course, as these plants provide food, they may diminish in appearance if the attractive part of the plant is eaten.

berries“It is a good idea to have a number of different plants that perform in the winter, so there is food for wildlife and continuing beauty for the gardener,” she said. “Another benefit of planning for winter is that we also end up enhancing the garden during the growing season. Most of the plants that perform in winter provide some display--flowers, interesting foliage, etc.--during the growing season.”

Looking at the garden in all seasons will help with the planning of the winter garden.

“In winter, try to decide where plants with seasonal interest can be placed,” she said. “While doing this, think back to the summer garden and decide if you have room for plants in the locations you have selected.

“If the first choice for a winter garden is a shrub and there is no room, consider an ornamental grass or perennial. There are many plants from which to choose and the choices have to be practical, just as they are during the growing season.”

It is also important to find a site that meets the plant’s cultural needs. When selecting plants that perform in winter, it is still important to match the plant to the site in which it will be grown. If the plant is a full-sun plant, be sure it is grown in a full-sun site.

“Something that is seldom considered is the soil condition of the site in late winter and early spring,” she said. “This is the time of year when snow is melting and spring rains may be failing. Some areas in the yard may be prone to flooding or standing water.
“Get to know the garden at this time of year so an appropriate plant can be chosen or, if the location is poor, it can be avoided or improved.”

Giving plants good care so that they go into winter in good condition is also important. Plants that are intended to provide winter beauty must be given good care throughout the growing season.

“If these plants are neglected during the growing season, it is unlikely that they will look good in the fall,” she said. “If they look worn out late in the season, they will not be able to add beauty to the garden in winter.”

winterWinter may, however, undermine the best planning efforts. A heavy snowfall or ice storm in the early part of the winter may knock down some of the plants that give the garden structure, such as ornamental grasses.

“That point of interest may be lost for the rest of the winter,” she said. “It is wise to select a variety of plants that provide different types of winter interest. If the garden contains plants with bright berries, the loss of the ornamental grasses under the heavy snow load may be easier to accept.”

Many common garden plants provide winter interest. Ornamental grasses such as Miscanthus, switch grass (Panicum) and Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium) provide structure, subtle buff color, and interesting seed heads. These plants really stand out when planted in front of evergreens, she noted.

Common perennials such as Astilbe, Bluebeard (Caryopteris), Purple coneflower (Echinacea) (bottom), and showy sedum (Sedum spectabile) have interesting seed heads that persist into winter.

Woody plants can also add to winter beauty. Some have colored stems or bark. These include Paperbark maple (Acer griseum), river birch (Betula nigra), Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica) and several species of dogwood.

For additional color, select plants that have persistent berry-like fruits. These include Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and winterberry (llex verticillata) for red fruit, beautyberry (Callicarpa species) (top right) with bright purple fruit, and crabapples (top left) and viburnums (fruit color varies by species and cultivar).

“Nature can also provide beauty that the gardener could never have planned,” said Yiesla. “Plants covered with thick frost in the early morning provide a delightful surprise when least expected.

“A little sleet or freezing rain can add a dazzling sparkle to trees and shrubs. The winter garden is ever changing.”