The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden

P. O. Box 3793
Minneapolis MN 55403

Planting for Winter Interest

by Kathy Urberg, Master Gardener
and Friend of the Garden

Amur Cherry
Amur cherry (Prunus maackii) is a relatively small tree with bronze shiny bark that stands out against the snow as does the peeling, subtly colored bark of river birch (Betula nigra). Rose hips left on hardy shrub roses also add color.

As you anxiously await the Garden’s opening in April are your thoughts back in the woods anticipating the emerging spring ephemerals and budding trees that were so lovingly planted this past fall? While gardens seem to go to sleep in the winter they can still brighten a gray winter day. As the plant catalogs start arriving think about planning a native landscape, one that sparkles in the winter.

In winter, without flowers and leaves to distract us, we see the bare bones of the garden. And the structural aspects of the land will provide more interest. Like garden sculpture, plants with sculptural qualities can be quite engaging. Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) and yucca (Yucca spp) are examples of plants whose forms really stand out in the winter.

Red Osier Dogwood
The red and yellow stems of dogwoods (Cornus sericea) brighten the winter landscape.

Winter color can come from berries and bark. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), viburnums, and many crab apples have red or yellow berries that persist for much of the winter and have the added benefit of attracting birds.

Thinking of the Wildflower Garden after the gate has closed, you might consider not cutting back the dead foliage and seed heads of plants like Rudbeckia species and purple, pink and even yellow coneflowers, (Echinacea spp). When the floral color has faded, the dark seed heads look beautiful against the snow and are attractive to birds.

Northwind in WinterOrnamental grasses contribute both structure and color in fall and winter ranging from beige through browns into reds. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purpurascens’, Feather reedgrass, Calamagrostis xacutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, and Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) are good choices. For shaded spots the palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis) has grass-like stems that hold up all winter.

Evergreens, of course, add a welcome green to the winter landscape. Yew (Taxus spp) and Juniper (Juniperus spp) will tolerate shade, while spruce, pine, and fir grow happily in the sun. Do pass, however, on Colorado blue spruce. It is short lived and susceptible to disease in our climate. Black Hills spruce looks similar and is better suited for Minnesota.

Finally, with a bird feeder you can still watch the birds often seen in the Wildflower Garden. Cardinals, house finches, blue jays, nuthatches, lively chickadees and woodpeckers will entertain all winter long. Plan now, plant in the spring, and next winter pour a cup of tea, sit down by the window and enjoy the winter landscape.

Note: Associated article on winter interest with Ornamental Grasses for the Home Landscape

Note: This article was published in the Fringed Gentian™, Winter 2008, Vol. 56, #1.