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Creating A Winter Garden

The garden tours of spring and summer are fleeting memories, but I have noticed that tree tours and viewing the fall colors are on the rise. I wonder when gardeners will start to offer tours of their winter gardens. When they do, I want to be the first in line.
Would you consider putting your garden on tour in the winter or does the thought of it give you cold chills—not because it’s cold outside but because your garden just doesn’t look good during the winter months.

Picture natural landscapes

True, it is easier to design a garden to look good in the spring and summer when the variety of plants seems endless. When our spring and summer gardens turn into fall, then winter gardens, it becomes a bit more challenging.

When thinking of the winter garden, my mind sees native and natural landscapes. As a child, my sister and I were always hiking in the woods that surrounded our farm. Not even snow and ice could stop us. On these hikes I can vividly remember seeing the natural beauty that was designed by circumstance and Mother Nature. Incredible fall color, beautiful fruit, natural slopes and rock outcroppings, trickling creeks, bark and buds of all shapes, textures, and colors. It is this experience that I turn to for the inspiration and design of a truly beautiful winter landscape.

Utilize current plants

Winter in Kentucky can be unpredictable, but you can bet it will look and feel like winter for several months. So, you’ll want your garden to look appropriate to the season. First, evaluate the plants you have. Are you cutting back perennials or grasses that if left alone could bring beauty to the garden, especially if it snows? Have you provided an occasional evergreen backdrop for some of your plants so that their subtle winter colors are enhanced from a distance? Have you chosen a combination of deciduous and evergreen plants, which are vital for winter interest?

Add a witch hazel

Next, search for new plants that have subtler or perhaps unusual characteristics. Incorporating plants with unusual shapes that are revealed only when the leaves fall off can provide an excellent seasonal focal point. Adding some of these plants may be enough to transform your garden for winter.

The plant that comes to mind is witch hazel. The first one to bloom is the common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. The yellow spider-like flowers emerge in October and November and are quite fragrant. Another similar species is the Vernal witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, which blooms in early winter. The flower petals are yellow while the inner surface is red.

The most commonly found witch hazels in gardens today bloom in mid- to late-winter, with a few standing out above the rest: Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise,’ with its clear yellow flowers; ‘Diane,’ known to have the best red flowers; ‘Jelena,’ with beautiful reddish copper flowers and excellent fall color; and Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida,’ Chinese witch hazel with fragrant soft-yellow flowers.

Add twig dogwoods

Another popular group is the red and yellow twig dogwoods. These shrubby-shaped dogwoods don’t look or act like the flowering dogwoods we’re so familiar with. The foliage is similar; the blooms are not. The fuzzy white flowers are not very showy and emerge as the new growth is filling out. This doesn’t seem to matter because the new stems are the focus. The twig dogwoods prefer a sunny to partly shady spot and will not tolerate a dry area. Regular pruning is required to remove the older stems, as they become gray to maintain the most colorful one- to two-year-old growth.

It is not hard to find a twig dogwood but some are much better than others. I suggest looking for the following: Redosier dogwood, with young stems that are bright- to dark-red, typically growing 7-9 feet without maintenance pruning. The cultivar ‘Flaviramea’ has yellow stems, and although not the easiest one to grow, it is widely available. Bloodtwig dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, has young stems that are purple to dark red above with the lower part of the stem appearing greenish. The tree grows 6-15 feet and can form a nice mass or colony. ‘Viridissima’ is the most popular yellow-twigged form, but my personal favorite and one that is gaining quickly in popularity is ‘Midwinter Fire.’ Its young stems are red at the base, orange in the middle, and yellow on the tips. In the right light it indeed looks like it is on fire.

Consider brambles

Another plant to consider seems a bit unusual: ornamental brambles—raspberries, blackberries, and wineberries.

These varieties are ornamental and deciduous shrubs with thorns, have little or no fruit, and are grown for their stunning winter stems. They are hard to find but well worth it. They do need room to grow. Cut them back to the ground every year for the best stem coloration. Look for Rubus biflorus var. quinquiflorus with its prickly silvery-white stems, and Rubus cockburnianus ‘Golden Veil’ with its golden foliage and purplish white stems for winter.

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