In northern Illinois, at least four months out of the year are
wintry. The flowers and leaves that dominate spring and summer gardens
are gone. Many landscapes are dull and boring, but they don’t
have to be. By assessing the landscape now, planning for winter
interest, and modifying the yard this spring, next winter’s
yard will be pleasant and appealing even if the weather is cold
The first step is to look out the window. Particular attention
should be paid to the views from frequently used windows and areas
near exterior doors. The typical winter landscape is subdued with
subtle accents of color and form. An attractive winter landscape
features colorful fruits or interesting seed heads, unusual or appealing
branching structure or plant form, ornamental bark of trees and
shrubs, and a foundation of evergreens. If these characteristics
are missing or limited, it is time to consider adding one or more
of the following ideas to the yard.
Crabapples and hawthorns can be the stars of the winter landscape.
Their bright fruits grace the trees like jewelry until early spring.
In general, the smaller fruits are harder, so birds put off eating
them until late winter.
Hundreds of crabapple cultivars are available, so a wise homeowner
will select one with disease resistance as well as other desired
characteristics. White flowered crabapples have pink to red flower
buds, medium green leaves, yellow fall color, and red or yellow
fruits. Yellow fruits deepen to cider-orange after several heavy
frosts. Dark pink flowered or "rosybloom" crabapples have
dark green leaves and dark red fruits. Top rated red fruited crabs
include Sugar Tyme, Red Jewel, Adirondack, and Prairifire. Some
high quality yellow fruited cultivars are Golden Raindrops, Ormiston
Roy, and White Cascade. Many other good crabapples are available
as well. In addition to their colorful fruits crabapples have attractive
Hawthorns tend to be under used in the home landscape. In winter
their eye-catching fruits and flaking bark are an asset. Hawthorns
have white flowers in spring and orange-red fall color. Like crabapples,
hawthorns are susceptible to a number of diseases so care should
be taken when deciding on a variety. The two best hawthorns for
the home landscape are Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum)
and Winter King hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter
King’). Washington hawthorns range from multistemmed vase-shaped
to rounded 30 foot trees. The 1/2 inch glossy red fruits last all
winter. Washington hawthorn lives up to its name with numerous 1
to 3 inch thorns. On the other hand, Winter King hawthorn is almost
thornless. It reaches a mature height of 25 feet with a rounded
crown. It has lovely light gray and tan checkered bark.
Ornamental grasses win the award for best winter seed display.
Ranging in color from tans to rusts, the decorative seedheads come
in a variety of forms including plumes and tails.
Plant forms and branching patterns are significant in winter. Weeping,
layered, or contorted plants are more visible without leaves hiding
their shape. Snow will collect on the topside of horizontal tree
branches emphasizing the plant’s distinctive form. My favorite
with this characteristic is pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia),
with bur oak a close second.
The color and texture of bark can be a major attribute in the
winter landscape. For example the peeling shiny orange bark of paperbark
maple (Acer griseum) is a standout against the snow. Eastern redbud
(Cercis canadensis) has lovely shredding brown and cinnamon-red
bark. Attractive bark may be understated like the smooth striated
grays of serviceberry (Amelanchier) or the undulating gray
bark of musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana). Shrubs may also
be used for their interesting bark. A plant primarily grown for
its winter bark is redosier or redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea).
For those who do not like red, a yellow cultivar is available.
Evergreen conifers are the backbone of the winter landscape. Spruces,
pines, junipers, and arborvitae are commonly used in northern Illinois
but douglasfir, hemlock, and fir are good choices too. With the
availability today of a variety of conifers, gardeners should use
these plants for more than windbreaks and foundation plantings.
The specimen blue spruce in the front yard can easily be replaced
with a number of other unusual and easy to grow conifers, that make
a statement in the landscape year round.
Northerners need to plan their landscape for year round beauty.
The winter landscape can be as picturesque as summer with careful
observation, planning, and planting.