Give cold-weather doldrums the brush off by filling your yard with winter garden plants. These head-turning beauties punctuate winter scenery with color and texture. Count on a mix of trees, shrubs and perennials to design your own palette of winter plants.
As freezes wipe out the garden, you’ll be glad to have a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) on your winter plants roster. These treasured trees boast sculptural forms that take center stage when leaves fall. For bark that glows against snow, choose coral bark Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’). Bark on new growth is most intensely colored, as well as bark on plants located in full sun. Prune mature twigs to promote colorful new growth.
Visit a public garden to view Chinese or lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) for consideration as one of your winter garden plants. This vase-shaped shade tree offers interesting bark patterns on its trunk. Exfoliating bark produces mottling in shades of gray, brown, orange and green, creating a pretty patchwork pattern in the landscape.
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) also features exfoliating bark. In this pretty small tree, chocolate brown bark peels back to reveal a buff-colored trunk. Crape myrtles are typically pruned to lift the canopy and create a strong vase shape, which in turn adds a strongly sculptural outline to a winter scene.
Japanese flowering cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) is a spring favorite for its amazing flower power, but the shiny, deep brown bark also makes this tree a good candidate for a winter garden plant. Be sure to plant this tree where you’ll be able to easily savor the spring floral display.
European beech (Fagus sylvatica) falls into a similar category with its silver-gray, smoothly wrinkled bark. Trees hold their branches in a horizontal scaffold, and branches cling to the golden autumn leaves through winter. The result is an eye-pleasing structure with very deliberate, almost architectural lines. The effect is breath-taking in a mature tree.
Winter shrubs also lend strong interest to cold-weather landscapes. In areas where snow flies, red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’) literally sparkles as winter drags on. Bright red stems show up strongly against snow and also pair well with dark evergreens.
Hollies are another traditional winter favorite with their evergreen foliage and colorful berries. For showstopping winter berries, plant several native winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata). This holly is actually deciduous and drops its leaves to reveal stems that are covered with bright red berries. A hedge of winterberry in full fruit will stop traffic.
Camellias prefer acidic, moist yet well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. They flower in the fall and winter when their display of colorful blooms is most appreciated. The waxy-petalled flowers linger long on plants, displaying shades of red, pink, coral, white and bicolors. Plants are evergreen, growing to form shrubs or small trees. Once established, camellias are drought-tolerant.
The viburnum clan also boasts a host of fabulous winter plants. Two that hold colorful fruits well into winter are highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and linden viburnum (V. dilatatum). You’ll get best fruiting with linden viburnum if you plant more than one. Both of these viburnum also attract birds to your garden who come to feast on the fruits.
Perennials that will quickly become frosty favorites for their sculptural seedheads include purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) and a host of ornamental grasses. Also consider yarrow (Achillea millefolium), globe thistle (Echinops ritro) and black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida). Roses that set colorful hips also make outstanding winter plants.