By Melanie Mathieson
The Gardening Guru
The onset of winter and the accumulation of snow changes the landscape in your garden considerably.
Winter landscapes offer a quiet beauty of limited colours and mounds of snow that create unique shapes and forms within the garden.
During the winter months, the lush blooms and full foliage of summer are long gone, leaving the bare outline of trunks and branches.
Evergreens form the backbone of a winter landscape. Pine, spruce, and cedar provide height while their colour contrasts with the bare ground or snow.
Bird-watchers will want to include evergreen trees or shrubs for shelter for the birds, as well as plants with nuts or seeds or colourful berries.
Some deciduous trees have bark with beautiful colour or texture while many offer an interesting branching pattern that provides interest in contrast to the snow, or is lovely when draped in frost or snow.
Making the most of your landscape during winter requires a little planning when choosing plants, trees, and shrubs for your landscape design. Keeping this in mind when selecting species will extend your joy of the garden into the winter.
The best part of a winter garden is that there is no outdoor maintenance, but the look changes daily as the season progresses.
In our region, only a few trees or shrubs bloom in the late fall or early winter (the Pee Gee Hydrangea is one example). But there are some perennial species, such as sedum, perennial mums, and hydrangea, and even annuals like pansies, that can maintain their blooms until the first snows.
Flowering kale provides great fall colour that maintains itself almost right up until December, depending on how mild the early winter is. Because our region is limited in plant species that flower late in the season, do not let this deter you from enjoying a winter garden of interesting plants.
Shrubs with colourful winter berries are beautiful to both people and birds alike. Watch your feathered friends enjoy some of these choices.
Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) drops its leaves to reveal red berries that attract wild birds in winter. This shrub is from the holly family, but is hardy in our zone and is deciduous with tiny dark green glossy leaves that do not have thorns.
The beauty of this shrub is that it loses its leaves so the berries are very evident in the late fall and early winter. As winter progresses, the birds will eat the berries.
If you want to plant this species, make sure you buy both a male and female shrub to ensure you will have berries each season.
Meanwhile, Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a low, spreading shrub with aromatic foliage, which deer dislike, and waxy, gray fruit (think bayberry candles). You can find a few varieties hardy to our Zone 4.
The highbush or American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) bears white flowers in early summer, followed by masses of red berries. The foliage changes from green to red, then purple (sometimes) in the fall.
It grows to four-five feet tall and spreads three-four feet wide.
The berries are fully edible for both humans and birds. These make great jellies and jams, but can also be left on the tree to enjoy visually during the winter (just keep in mind these cranberries are not the same species as you buy in the grocery store).
Another tree of winter interest from the Viburnum family is the arrowood. The wild version of this shrub has been found on the shores of the Rainy River and Lake of the Woods, but is very common in Minnesota and the Sault Ste. Marie area.
It is hardy in our area and displays creamy-white showy flowers in the spring, then has dark blue berries in late fall. The birds love these berries so they may not be around long enough to enjoy all winter long.
This shrub is a great choice because it’s virtually pest- and disease-free, and can tolerate most planting conditions.
After a 50-year ban from Canada, because it was the alternate host to wheat rust, new cultivars of barberry have been allowed back into the horticultural market.
The Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergi) produces yellow flowers in spring, followed by red berries in the fall. Their leaves change to reddish purple and they grow from four-six feet in height and width.
Barberries range in size from dwarf to compact, and come in many varieties ranging from a dark red leaf to an almost chartreuse-coloured one The twigs are in this colour range, as well, but keep in mind these have small but very sharp thorns.
Another characteristic to look for when choosing plants for winter interest are shrubs and trees with interesting bark textures or colours. Many of these varieties with striking bark are more vivid in the winter without the leaves to obstruct the view.
Almost all of the dogwood species are hardy to the area. The red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Allemans’), has white flowers in May and bark that is red throughout the season, but turns fiery red to burgundy in the winter.
It grows to six-10 feet tall and five-10 feet wide.
Another variety to try is yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’), whose branches are bright yellow. The rich texture of the birch species is a hallmark of the tree as the bark sheds in strips.
Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) peels off in white strips while yellow birch (Betula aleghaniensis) yields shiny gold bark. Both of which are native to the region.
Also try river birch (Betula nigra), which offers a warm reddish-brown bark, or “Heritage” with salmon-coloured bark. Young’s weeping birch (Betula pendula ‘Youngii’) is a dwarf variety (six-12 feet tall) with a delicate branching pattern.
My personal favourite is the purple rain birch, with dark purple leaves throughout the summer, which are hesitant to drop in the fall, and a bright white bark that takes on a shredded look as the tree matures.
Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) got its name from the brilliant red foliage it displays in the fall, but it works equally hard in the winter when it’s “wings” of bark catch clumps of snow. The wings make the twigs appear almost square.
This bush grows both 10-15 feet tall and wide. It can be somewhat invasive over time, but can be kept under control with pruning.
Hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) also is known as Ironwood. In addition to its red, shaggy bark, it has fine branches that end in narrow, pointed buds.
In the Carolinian forest, it grows to 30-40 feet tall but found in the wild in our region, it only grows about 20 feet tall and can be found along the edges of the creeks and rivers feeding Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods.
It often is mistaken for a shrub species in our region, and the leaves are very similar to elm leaves (your favourite nursery should have a variety better-suited for horticultural planting in our region).
Other shrub species to look for are the hawthorn, corkscrew hazel, yew, alpine currant, and hydrangea varieties to increase garden interest throughout the winter.
Perennials may not be grown for their winter appearance, but they can offer attractive shapes after their colours fade. For example, sedums like Autumn Joy collect snow on their seed heads.
Ornamental grasses have tall, thin stems and fluffy tops that stay attractive well into winter—and are very interesting poking above the snow. Try Miscanthus, Panicum, or Calamagrostis genus or plume grass (Erianthus raennae).
Shrub roses and Rugosa roses offer a colourful fruit show as they display beautiful hips in winter that are edible to both humans and birds. If you want perennials for winter interest, make sure you do not trim them down until the spring.
Spend a little time observing your winter landscape this winter and if you decide it needs some sprucing up, keep these tips and suggestions in mind when choosing plants to add to the design of your garden next summer.