The Tree Center

Winter Landscaping Tips

December 31, 2018

Written by Dave G.

You invest love, energy and money into your garden, so why enjoy it for only part of the year? Winter is a season too, and despite the cold and rain or snow there are ways to make your garden more enjoyable in winter than you might think it could be. With some planning and thought your garden can truly be a ‘4-season’ place, with something happening to see and experience all year round. Let’s consider some ways you can make that happen.

Early Winter – the Structure of Evergreens

Before the snow arrives, but after the fall is over, your garden enters the ‘season of black earth’. Dark, damp soil, (ideally already covered with a layer of rich mulch), fills the spaces between your evergreens, and shows through bare branches that earlier were dense with leaves. This is the time when the ‘bones’ of your garden are most visible. Designers use this expression to talk about the basic structure of a garden, not just from paths and lawns, but from the strategic placement of evergreens. Plants like holly, yew, mugo pine and other evergreens suddenly become dominant features, and their colors and shapes can be truly appreciated. If you have very few of these vital plants, then your garden at this time will be bare and unattractive.

Make sure you include a good selection of evergreens suitable for your climate when you plant your garden – without them it will be a winter desert. Think carefully about their placement too, considering how big they will become after, say, the first ten years.  Evergreens can confound our expectations – they do really just keep growing forever, adding inches every year. That ‘dwarf’ evergreen is just one that takes longer to grow, so don’t overcrowd the garden either, or you will be in for a shock in 15 years. Many of these plants become relatively large, and make beautiful specimens, so consider this and leave room for them to grow.

When hurrying to get indoors from those early chilly winds, take a moment to look around and appreciate the varied forms of your evergreens. The layered branches of spruce, the arching forms of spreading junipers, or the angles of an interesting dwarf pine – these are all visual pleasures that can be too-easily lost in the rush of daily life. Use your garden as a place to draw breath – not just during the joy of summer, but at all seasons.

The Dazzle of Winter Berries and Branches

Besides the greens, silvers and blues of evergreens, this early winter period can have bright color too. Many berry plants will be in full flush, and the bright red of hollies always stands out. Make sure to include some good berry producers among your holly choices, so you too can have the pleasure of their red highlights. Seek out these plants in variations of berry color. Most berry plants have a dominant color, often red, but orange and yellow variations can occur, and these varieties add interest to your plantings.

In colder areas, the Winterberry is a beautiful source of red berries, as this native American deciduous holly has branches heavy with berries in early winter. Remember to plant a male tree as well, to ensure a heavy berry crop. In warmer areas Pyracantha, the Firethorn, has bright orange berries in winter which can be so dense they almost hide the glossy leaves.  Trained up a sunny wall, there are few sights in winter as glorious.

Planting trees and shrubs with winter berries brings another bonus too. Birds will flock to your garden to feed on them, especially later in winter when other food sources become scarcer. The movement, color and best of all the sounds of them will remind us that spring is already on its way, and their speed and liveliness show us how to survive the long nights and cold of winter.

Add Deciduous Plants with Colored Twigs

Always include some deciduous shrubs and trees with colored twigs in your planting choices. The red-twig dogwoods are easy to grow, and a terrific source of color in winter. Both red and yellow twigs are found in different varieties, and some of the newer ones have very bright coloring. Maximize the effect by pruning hard every couple of years, cutting back almost to the ground to encourage many long, highly-colored young twigs. The bark darkens with age, and the color is best on one or two-year branches. (Go easier if you live in very cold areas, where growth is less vigorous.) If you are lucky enough to have a stream or pond, then dogwoods thrive in the damp soil, and look wonderful reflected in the dark water, before it freezes over.

For a taller plant, the Coral Bark Japanese Maple (called ‘Sango-kaku’) has young red branches too, especially when planted in a sunny place. The golden fall leaves drop to reveal this hidden treat for winter from a classic maple that can reach 25 feet eventually.

Remember to Bark up the Right Tree

An often-overlooked element of beauty in the garden is the bark of trees. When choosing trees – small or large – consider the bark too and try to choose trees that have more interesting surfaces. They may not be noticed much when the leaves are out, but just as those evergreens come to life in winter, so does the bark of trees. Often thick and deeply furrowed, it speaks to us of endurance and longevity – a calm resistance to the tribulations of daily life.

The appreciation of winter bark is a quiet and introspective pursuit, but the more you look the more you see. From the splashy camouflage colors of the Bloodgood Sycamore, which always catches attention, to the rich mahogany red of flowering cherry trees, not only can you learn to identify trees from their bark alone, but the variations, from smooth and tactile to the peeling strips of Crape Myrtle trees in winter, bark is endlessly fascinating.

Linger a Little

Finally, no matter what the weather, stop for a moment, or take some time on a crisp, sunny morning to visit your garden in winter. The sights, sounds and feel of it will transport you to another world – and extend your garden enjoyment through all the seasons. A little planning and thoughtful purchases will bring great rewards.