During the winter season, when we retreat more to the warm indoors than out into our gardens, it is good to see the fruits of winter making our gardens glow. Clouds may seem to always be covering the winter sky in Kentucky, but I find myself gazing out the same window and finding so much joy in all the colors.
I know what you are thinking: winter isn’t colorful, it’s just brown. True, it isn’t as flashy as spring, summer, and fall, but winter’s subtle color can put on quite a show.
Eyes for winter
Things you never noticed before can catch your eye—the color of your mulch, the color of the leaves that fell from the trees so late. If you live in the city, the colors in your neighbor’s gardens may now be seen from yours. If you live in the country, the colors of your barn or lake are now more visible than ever. In my garden, the pea-gravel patio in the middle of my garden seems to take on a different color in the winter after so much green has gone away.
What Mother Nature gives us naturally in winter can be used to our benefit in our cultivated and manicured gardens. Many trees and shrubs form beautiful and colorful fruits that persist into winter, with some fruits ripening late in December or January. When the birds discover that they are ripe, they will pick them off one by one until your plants are empty again, waiting for another spring to arrive.
Viburnums and crabapples
One of my all-time favorites is tea viburnum, Viburnum setigerum. Always noted as one of the heaviest fruiting viburnums, it somehow still never seems to be one of the most popular. It is a larger shrub, growing 8 to 10 feet tall, and looks amazing when planted in groups of three or more, so you do need some space. It has a very natural habit, and it definitely has a more loose and open form than many of the viburnums. In full fruit, the branches can arch over from the weight, making many think it is a weeping plant.
A close friend of mine has a planting of Donald Wyman crabapples, Malus x ‘Donald Wyman,’ in her back garden that is spectacular. She enjoys the beauty from her living room windows that stretch across one entire wall. The fabric she chose for the valance that frames the windows was inspired by the beautiful fruits in winter. This small tree can grow 20 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide. It blooms in the spring, starting out pink to red then opening to white.
Deciduous hollies are an absolute favorite of birds. Yes, these are hollies that lose their leaves in the winter. The bright red or orange fruits, depending on the variety, glow when they are planted in a large mass, so I recommend planting them in large groups so that there are enough for you and the birds to enjoy.
One of the most popular varieties is Red Sprite Winterberry, Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite.’ It grows only 3 to 5 feet tall and is rather round in shape, making it very appropriate for many smaller gardens. I dream of having these in my garden, but we tried them many years ago and they were stunning for about two days. Then the birds came in and ate every fruit in sight.
We decided that this plant wasn’t the one for us because, without the wintertime beauty, it is just average or less, at best, in the spring and summer. So we chose something with more year-round beauty for our small garden.
Don’t forget that hollies are either male or female, and the females bear the showy fruit, so without a male to pollinate the female, there will be no fruit at all.
A great plant for my garden is Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina domestica. It bears beautiful clusters of red berries from October to spring. It is perfect for my garden because the birds don’t like the fruit. It is not a bamboo, but the foliage does resemble that of bamboo, thus the name. It has a wonderful natural shape, growing 5 to 6 feet tall, and is evergreen most winters in Kentucky. It is not actually green in the winter, but the leaves turn reddish to purple with a mottling of green.
Last winter, it defoliated in late winter due to a few really cold days, but the fruit remained intact, and by mid-May you would never have known, as the new growth filled in beautifully. I always cut a few of the berry clusters with a little foliage attached in early December to surround the candles on my dining room table. It is a very simple centerpiece, but I love it.
Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean the gardening season is over. In fact, we spend more time looking at our gardens from our windows in the winter than any other season of the year. This spring, when warm weather, sunshine, and beautiful flowers are calling you to come out into the garden, take a moment and look out your favorite window. What could you add to your garden this spring that would give you beauty and color for all the winters to come?