By Laura Schwarz
It’s almost spring, and most Minnesotan gardeners are eager to get back to work. While we wait for warmer weather, we can still enjoy our yards. “Winter gardening” might seem like a foreign concept for Minnesotans, but realistically, we have countless options for making our winter landscapes interesting and beautiful.
March is a perfect time to think about what to plant this upcoming season so that next winter’s gardens have color and texture, even if we gardeners are forced to admire them through our frosty windows.
So, what plant characteristics make for good winter interest?
Broadleaf evergreens provide diversity among the familiar needled types associated with year-round foliage. A ‘PJM’ rhododendron will retain its leaves, often turning a bronzed purple color during the winter.
Other common needled evergreens can have unexpected foliage colors. ‘Mops’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) has bright yellow needles. ‘Wichita Blue’ juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) has airy grayish-blue needles that retain their color year-round.
Berries are another focal point of the winter landscape. Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a medium-sized shrub with clusters of dark purple berries that last into the winter. Many flowering crabapple trees also have fruits that persist on branches until spring. While most crabapple berries are red, cultivars ‘Lancelot’ and ‘Harvest Gold’ boast showy gold berries.
Yearly defoliation makes bark an unintentional front-runner in the garden. Yellow-twigged dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’) and flame willow (Salix x ‘Flame’) are large shrubs with bright yellow and orange twigs, respectively. These colors are shocking against a snowy backdrop.
Bark texture is equally important. Ornamental trees such as ‘Crimson Frost’ birch (Betula) and three-flower maple (Acer triflorum) have multi-colored exfoliating bark. Recently, I’ve also been admiring the dormant branches of ‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’), which has fuzzy brown stems and a funky jagged growth pattern.
In the past, I have often cut the seed-heads off of my perennials, mostly because I want them to expend their energy on foliage and root growth instead of seed production. But lately, I’ve realized the aesthetic value of dried seedpods in the winter landscape. I especially like the feathery tops of Astilbe species and the chunky pods of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Treating the landscape as a year-round entity can keep you engaged during even the dreariest winter days. When you start gardening this spring, think about planting for winter interest. Next year at this time, you’ll be glad you did!