Late autumn and the first snowfall of the winter season brings a change of pace in our busy lifestyle and allow us to take a deep breath. It also serves as the transition from vibrant summer color in the landscape to more subtle tones, textures and color. While we typically have a green backdrop in our landscape during the growing season, we are afforded the privilege of seeing it in quite a different setting as well, brilliant white. This blanket showcases the understated elements that have been present all season, but have been overpowered by annuals, perennials and flowering woody specimens.
Winter provides a time to appreciate the architecture of landscape plants. Branching patterns and color of deciduous shrubs and trees can be seen and appreciated for their character. Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick is a notable variety, known for its contorted branches. Redtwig and yellowtwig dogwoods also add splashes of color with their bark. Many varieties of weeping crabapples, cherries and Japanese maples also contribute to the interest of a site due to their branches. The weeping larch is a unique variety, in that it is a deciduous conifer. This specimen buds bright green in the spring, has a green/blue hue all summer, turns yellow in the fall, and drops its needles just before winter.
One of the staples of a summer landscape can also be used as a winter plant if desired. Hydrangea bushes can be left unpruned, leaving their past season’s flowers on the plant as a constant reminder of the season that lies ahead. The dried flowers have a delicate, lacey look to them and give the plant a ghostlike illusion of its summer form.
You can also draw wildlife into your surroundings during the winter months using landscape plants. The most frequent (and welcome) visitors will be various species of birds. They will use the trees and shrubs for shelter, protection and food. Serviceberry and kousa dogwoods are a great addition to a landscape for winter wildlife. Multiple varieties of viburnum, chokeberry and the Oregon grapeholly also bear fruit that are carried into the winter months. Sunflowers are a great source of food for all animals during the wintertime. Beware of luring rabbits and deer near your landscape plants during the winter months. They both may eat the buds the plants have set for next season, and rabbits may eat the bark of the tree or shrub. This will cause girdling of the plant, and if severe enough, could cause death.
Perhaps the mainstay of a winter landscape bed is the holly. Many varieties have been developed to improve the winter hardiness of this plant. Females produce fruit when pollinated by closely planted males. Most varieties keep their foliage through the winter season, but the winterberry holly drops its leaves, leaving the red fruit to survive through the winter. Cuttings can be used for holiday interest as well.
Ornamental grasses can transform the barren winter landscape, adding height and color. These plants are frequently planted in perennial beds and can be omitted when cutting back your perennials in the fall. These grasses are typically perennial, but be careful when selecting a variety. Some are only hardy to zone 5 or 6, and should be treated as annuals. These grasses can be cut back in the spring before next year’s growth begins to show.
Late winter (January-mid March) showcases the flowers of another deciduous shrub, Witchhazel. Hybrid varieties are popular and include Arnold Promise (yellow flowers), Diane (purple/red),and Jelena (red/orange). Witchhazels notify us that the winter season is coming to a close. Their flower seems almost magical in that it comes at such an abnormal time.
The Lenten Rose is from the Helleborus genus and blooms in winter, sometimes even pushing through a blanket of snow. The distinctive foliage is dark green and leathery and is one of the plant’s most appealing features. The large leaves are up to 18 inches long and 16 inches wide. The shy flowers resemble single roses and show their pretty faces to the ground. There are pink, rose and purple varieties, as well as white with pink blush. The Lenten Rose prefers shade and is perfect for shady patios or courtyard gardens where its delicate beauty can be appreciated. In areas where the soil freezes, a mid-winter thaw will bring a much appreciated floral display. The flowers are long-lasting and remain stunning as they slowly fade.
Non-living elements can also be incorporated into a winter landscape. Large boulders or ledgestone can give your landscape height, color and texture. Be sure that you select stones that are large enough to protrude from the typical snowfall level for your area. Choosing a rolling terrain for your landscape will also give you additional character during the dormant season. Starting with a properly designed hardscape will ensure your plants will maximize their possible impact to the area.
Spruce, pine and fir trees are without question the anchors of the winter vista in Northern Michigan. They provide scale, color and texture in an otherwise stark panorama. They are particularly noticeable in snowfalls that are close to the freezing mark. The heavy snow clings to their branches and provides a serene feeling when viewed from a close distance or from afar. Notable varieties that accentuate the winter landscape are Norway spruce, Serbian spruce and Balsam fir.
We are truly blessed to live in a climate with seasons. They provide constant change and keep us yearning for what is just around the corner. A four-season landscape is easy to build with the right plant varieties and a touch of design. Many of the above mentioned varieties can be found at your local nursery supply center and all varieties are available through special order with a landscape professional who can assist you with overall design and layout.
Scott Philp is the CEO and founder of Landscape Logic, a custom residential landscape design/build firm located in Northern Michigan. He graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and has designed and installed multiple award-winning projects. He has recently launched a division specializing in the design, fabrication, and installation of custom spas.
Written By Scott Philp