Most gardens look their best in spring and early summer. That is when the majority of plants flower, so is easy to have flowers then, and if you don’t plan your planting, you will pretty much automatically end up with a garden blooming in those seasons. But the last time I checked there are four seasons to the year, and a great garden has something interesting happening in all of them. In colder zones there is going to be a ‘dead zone’ in the middle of winter, but apart from that you can have interest as winter begins, and at the first sign it is ending. In warmer area there are many trees and shrubs you can grow that have attractive berry crops, and even flowers, throughout most of the winter months – all it takes is a little planning, and some thoughtful shopping. There is still time to plant – at least in the warmer areas – so plant something now that will bring color and interest and make yours a ‘four-season’ garden.
There are four strategies to make your garden interesting for as long as possible:
- Grow plants with persistent berries that hold right into the winter months
- Look for plants that flower as late as possible in fall and into the winter months.
- Find those rarities that bloom in the middle of winter.
- Plant trees and shrubs that bloom as early as possible in spring. In warmer zones those trees will often start in what is technically still winter – late January and February.
Let’s look at some of the options in these groups:
Berries bring Fall Beauty
Pyracantha – these evergreen shrubs have a lovely spring display of white blooms, but it is their red or orange berries that has lots of people calling them Firethorn. They can be grown as free-standing shrubs, or attached to a sunny wall, where they can love the heat and dryness. In early winter they are smothered in massive quantities of bright red or orange berries that look just fabulous. How long they last is in the hands of your local bird population, but often they will still be around when the New Year arrives. Look for hybrid varieties like ‘Victory’ or ‘Mohave’, which are hardier and resistant to the diseases that can destroy older types.
Holly Bushes – almost too well known to mention for warmer zones, but if you are in zone 4 and 5, consider the hybrid group with names like ‘Blue Prince’ and ‘Blue Princess’. These are the hardiest evergreen hollies available, and for the best berry crops, remember to plant them in combination of a male and female tree. Blue Prince and Princess are often conveniently sold planted together, so a great and colorful crop of red berries is almost guaranteed.
Winterberry – it is hard to see this deciduous shrub as a holly bush, but it is. An American native plant, the bare winter branches are clothed in bright red berries that last for months of the winter. They are hardy in at least zone 4, where other holly bushes don’t grow. Called Ilex verticillata, these plants love damp places and selected forms like Berry Heavy are always the best bet for the heaviest crop.
Late Blooming Trees and Shrubs
Panicle Hydrangea – this hardy group (Hydrangea paniculata) is distinct form the traditional mop-head pink and blue hydrangea, and they flower late in the summer. They grow well even in zone 3, and in hot zones too, so they are incredibly versatile. As fall comes many types develop wonderful red tones on the blooms, and while they are strictly-speaking ‘dead’ by the time winter comes, those flowers still look great right into the early months of winter, so they certainly work for color and interest at that time. Look for ‘Firelight’ and ‘Fire and Ice’ for the best red colors.
Strangely often overlooked, the American oak-leaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, has some great varieties for this purpose too, and the foliage – shaped like giant oak-leaves – is a bonus. The variety ‘Ruby Slippers’ has wonderful dark red flowers going into winter.
Camellia – these gorgeous plants can be grown outside in zones 8 and 9, and in sheltered spots in zone 7 too. Start the season with some fall-blooming Sasanqua types, such as the ones called October Magic. These have been bred especially to be small bushes – they could be grown in pots in cooler zones – and they all bloom in late fall and early winter. The variety called ‘Ruby’ has wonderful rich red blooms, while ‘White Shi-Shi’ is (of course) a gorgeous pure white. Another beauty is ‘Kanjiro’, which becomes a large shrub in time (about 8 feet tall), and so it’s wonderful in a larger garden.
Follow on with a variety like ‘Yuletide’, whose scarlet blooms, spreading wide with a central brush of yellow stamens, have the perfect Christmas look. As winter winds down, the lovely variety called ‘Pink Icicle’ will be in bloom as early as February in milder zones, bringing bloom to the tail-end of winter.
Winter Blooming Shrubs
Naturally you need to live in a warm zone – at least zone 7 – to enjoy blooms in mid-winter outdoors. If you do, seeking out winter flowers will give you great garden interest in those warm breaks from the cold. Here is one to whet your appetite.
Edgworthia Paper Bush – although perhaps in reality flowering for spring very early, February surely counts as ‘winter blooming’, and that is when the Paper Bush stops you in your tracks with its amazing balls of yellow and white flowers on the ends of the branches. A new arrival in the USA, so you may not have seen it before, this plant, which comes originally from Japan, has been well-known in Europe for a long time. If you are in zone 7 or warmer, you can’t be without this plant in your garden. Sometimes hard to track down, it is worth waiting for.
Redbud– strangely overlooked by many, the redbuds trees are among the first in bloom, and wow, they are spectacular. Rich purple-pink blooms cluster along the bare black stems, and you can see this plant from about a mile away. Conveniently, there are two varieties, the eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis, which grows in zone 4, and like moisture and cooler conditions, and the western redbud, Cercis occidentalis, which grows in zone 6 or higher, and thrives in hot, drier conditions. You see, you have no excuse – whatever your climate, there is a redbud tree for you.
Deciduous Magnolia – very distinct from the evergreen type, these bloom on bare branches in spring. Varieties like ‘Royal Star’ are very early blooming, and they will be in bloom in February in warmer areas. That one is white, but for color look at anything with a girl’s name – ‘Jane’, or ‘Betty’ for example. With great pink and purple blooms these are resistant to late frosts. If you have the room, you will never regret planting ‘Galaxy’, a stunning upright tree that is an absolute show-stopper with its huge, vibrant pink blooms. Surprisingly, these all grow well even in zones 8 and 9, and they deserve to be planted much in warmer places for late winter blooming.