Winter Gardening

Red twig dogwoods in March at the Biltmore Estate. The brilliant red stems are the youngest stems on the shrubs so pruning these in early spring is essential. Older stems lose the vibrancy of color and must be removed. For a good  tutorial on how-to prune red twigs, click here.

Winter interest isn't limited to evergreens (though evergreens, both conifer and not, are needed in the garden, click here and here for more on that). Many perennials (heuchera, autumn joy fern, angelina sedum, bergenia) are evergreen and add color through the winter. Shrubs like red and yellow twig dogwood are a striking contrast to a bleak landscape, and certain deciduous trees, once their leaves have dropped, are interesting in their architecture (think the zig-zag stems of redbuds, the structure of a Japanese maple, the thin, flowing branches of a weeping cherry).

A four season plant is a horticulture phrase indicating that the plant provides interest in the garden year round.  A good example is a a pair of dogwoods. They bloom beautifully in spring, provide green in summer months, have a reddish-purple leaves and berries in fall, and their winter branching is intriguing. The birds love them, too.

Conifers as the backbone of a winter garden, in this case, winter play land. (Picture by staffer, Sarah Davis.)

One of the best features of a paperbark maple (besides the fall color) is the exfoliating, cinnamon colored bark. This tree matures at 20'-30' x 15'-20' and can handle some shade. 

Not every plant offers four season interest however, and picking what works for your yard is a thoughtful process. Red twig dogwoods are an example of this. Winter is the only season they really stand out, but often there are cultivars like, 'Elengantissima' that have variegated leaves to give interest throughout the summer. Determining what needs your landscape has is key, but who couldn't use a bit of color in winter?

Smaller shade trees are well suited for the landscape due to their size (30' and under) and many provide all season interest (click here for a list of smaller landscape trees). Paperbark maples are becoming a favorite to many homeowners, as well as serviceberry, hawthorns and American hornbeam. 

Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' turns golden in fall and keeps that color through winter. (Cut back in early to late spring to enjoy the color all winter.) Winterberry holly is loaded with berries that show when leaves fall, giving the garden color and the birds food.

Shrubs and perennials can provide winter interest, too. Winterberry shrubs (deciduous hollies) hold their bright red berries until late winter. Combine these shrubs (typically 8' x 10' - 6' x 8', but dwarf versions stay closer to 3'- 4' x 3'- 4') with perennial grasses like switchgrass 'Heavy Metal', and not only is the combination beautiful but the winter color of both is so worth it. 

Other shrubs like oak leaf hydrangeas not only give us hydrangeas bloom, but have great fall color and exfoliating bark. Prune them in spring after blooming and they can handle both sun and shade. Yuccas (yes, they're shrubs) are stunning color all winter and they're drought resistant. Here's a  short list of shrubs that provide winter interest.  

Perennials can provide winter color too. Bergenia and heuchera make for stunning winter containers (just don't forget to water them). Yes, throw in a kale or cabbage or two, but the perennials will be the staying power. When winter is over, you can put them in the landscape. 

This week's drop in temperature remind us that cold weather is offical, but that doesn't mean, we can't still enjoy our gardens. 

Cinthia Milner is the garden coach, and blog writer for BB Barns Garden Center.

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.