Between the Rows: Plants that add interest to your winter garden

  • Gold winterberries stand out against the dark Norway spruce. Interest in your winter garden can be created in numerous ways. Color comes to my mind first because it immediately makes itself felt. FOR THE RECORDER/Pat Leuchtman

For The Recorder
Sunday, January 07, 2018

My frigid winter garden is peaceful, blanketed with snow. Mysterious tracks speak of the creatures that wander across the landscape, leaving hints of their dancing in the bright moonlight, or shifting shadows of the breezy day. Tiny birds frolic near the Norway spruce and seem to be feasting on the seeds left for them on the snow.

My “town” winter garden is small and very different from the fields of Heath, where the snow danced with the wind, jiving its way down the hill and into the woods. However, no matter whether you have an urban plot or country fields, the winter garden needs no hand, or back, to tend it during the colder and colder days of the new year.

What the winter garden does need is thought in the spring, summer and fall about which plants can add interest during the cold and snowy months. That interest can be created in numerous ways. Color comes to my mind first because it immediately makes itself felt. Because I wanted color in my winter garden, and I tend to choose shrubs for low maintenance, I first selected dogwood shrubs. I bought the aptly named “red twig dogwood” with its bare crimson branches, that stand out elegantly against the snow.

More and more people have become familiar with red twig dogwoods, or Cornus alba, with cultivar names like “prairie fire,” and “midnight sun,” as well as others with varying sizes and shades of red.

Cornus sanguinea cultivars like “arctic fire” are smaller than the alba. Also, not all of the Sanguinea family are solely red. Midnight fire is quite golden, turning red at the tips.

Cornus sericea is the family of osier dogwood shrubs. I have one that lacks a cultivar name, but it has both red and yellow-green branches. I have always called my third cornus a yellow twig. Upon research, I believe it to be “flaviramea.” When the sun is shining on it, I find it even more stunning than the red twigs. It is also extremely tolerant of my wet soil. The lower branches that touch the ground easily sucker, and I could have babies to share.

Berries are another way of adding color to the winter garden. Again, because my garden is wet, I chose swamp-loving winterberries. One is the necessary male, two produce red berries, and one has surprising golden berries.

The former owners of my house planted two beautiful English hollies. One, the female, is quite large and filled with scarlet berries, while the other, the male, is somewhat smaller, and bears no berries. If I had neighbors that wanted to have a berried holly, they might not even need the male. Pollinators can easily travel around a whole neighborhood.

A berried tree I have come to admire in Greenfield is the hawthorn that produces lots of red berries. The berries certainly provide winter interest and feed the birds.

In addition to berries, some trees have the advantage of unusual bark. I have planted two river birches, which have a peeling sort of bark with cinnamon tones. This is a tree that loves the wet, and the bark is just as beautiful as that of the white birch.

When I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum’s wooded Monk’s Garden, I was fascinated by the paperbark maple, Acer grisem, which has bark in shades of brown, and reddish brown that peels away to reveal the new “cinnamony” bark.

A friend gave me a beautiful book for Christmas, “The Winter Garden: Reinventing the Season” by Cedric Pollett (Francis Lincoln publisher) that shows the drama of these plants in the garden, especially when planted in masses, which is to say in groups of two or three.

Pollet took beautiful photographs of many winter gardens, most of which are planted on a scale larger than many of us will enjoy. These are English winter gardens where the weather is much milder than ours in New England. Even though we share many plants, the blooming period might be different because of that milder weather.

One of the especially helpful aspects of the book is the section given over to photographs, descriptions and needs of many dramatic winter garden plants. One of the trees that captured my attention was the maple Acer conspicuum. It certainly would be conspicuous in a garden because during the spring and summer, the bark is a shade of orange, it turns pink in the fall and then scarlet in mid-winter. However, Pollet says it is hardy to minus 11 degrees, and right now, that is feeling a little iffy in this year’s glacial winter.

I have not mentioned conifers because I do not have much experience with them. We did plant a couple of Green Emerald arborvitae next to the majestic Norway spruce at the back of our yard and they are doing quite well, in spite of the fact that the soil there is wetter than conifers appreciate. These are popular privacy or hedge evergreens, and that is their function in my garden.

Evergreens certainly make a statement in the winter garden, and they are not always green. In fact, conifers are so disparate in color, texture and form that they need a whole column of their own, but that’s a topic for some other day.

For now, I close with wishes for happy gardens of every sort in 2018.

Pat Leuchtman has written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com.