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09/26/2016 12:00 AM

Creating a Winter Garden

Lenten rose can stay green if planted near the house.

In any other season, the question is: How does your garden grow? But in winter, the question is: How does it handle snow? Cold temperatures, ice, and snow can eliminate most of the features that create splendor in a garden during warmer months.

“The fundamental thing with winter is to look at your property and ask yourself, ‘What are the features that are going to persist into the winter?’” said Kathy Connolly, an Old Saybrook landscape designer and Shore Publishing columnist. “If there aren’t any—for instance, like strictly lawn or if it’s bare of things that will persist into winter—it’s probably not going to be a very pleasing thing to look at in winter.”

Basically, a yard needs structure. According to Connolly, well-placed gazebos, arbors, and other wooden constructions can look nice year round. They might even improve with a dusting of snow or draped with icicles. Paths, too, help add winter interest.

“Pathways tend to be very helpful year round,” Connolly said, “not just for walking on but for signaling people how to get to the door, maybe creating some interesting lines across the landscape.” Those are things that will persist all year, and they can make a big difference in terms of the winter appearance.

That underlying structure—from pathways to pergolas—should get pinned down first.

“I don’t start with the plants,” Connolly said. “I start with what’s already there, what will persist all winter, and build it up from there. It’s not just about the plants. It’s really about the permanent features of the landscape.”

Sandi Manna of M&M Garden Designs, in Madison, said that trellises or unusual items like an obelisk will also add winter interest.

“Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean your garden shouldn’t look good,” said Manna, whose passion is creating year-round interest in the yard. “I love that. That’s my biggest thing.”

Only once there’s an underlying structure is it time to think about plants. The obvious choice is evergreens. Beyond needled evergreens like spruce and pine, there is a variety of broadleaf ones, such as rhododendrons and azaleas.”To some extent they retain their good looks and their leaves throughout the winter,” said Connolly.

“There are some perennials that are evergreen,” said Manna. “There’s a Christmas fern, and a perennial called Lenten rose. If Lenten rose is close to the house, it’ll stay green all winter. It flowers really early, even before the daffodils.”

Another potential source of winter color is holly, such as the American holly, winterberry holly, and inkberry holly. The first two produce bright red berries during the winter; the third produces black berries.

“All three of those are native in Connecticut,” Connolly said, “so they are good for wildlife, and they have good persistence through the winter.”

Linda DeFrancesco of DeFrancesco Farm, in Northford, recommends sedum to feed birds all winter long.

“If people like birds,” said Manna, “they can add a heater to their bird bath in the winter. That’s a good way to attract birds to your garden. When everything frozen, it’s hard for the birds to find water.”

Another factor to consider is texture. In the winter, leaves drop away, revealing bark and stems. Trees with decorative bark include sycamores, Japanese stewartia, paperbark maple, and birch.

“The classic for New England is the birch,” said Connolly. “I like to use river birches because they’re very easy to grow.”

Manna is a fan of the peeling bark of the paperbark maple in particular. “When there’s frost on it and the sun comes out in the morning, it’s really pretty,” she said.

Grasses such as Indian grass and little bluestem grass can also look good all year long. The trick, according to Connolly, is cutting the grass back in March instead of in the fall.

“I don’t see many people leaving their grasses standing during the winter, but some of them can be quite beautiful,” said Connolly. “When it’s just raining and cold outside, they keep their form and they look good.”

According to Manna, combining different foliage colors and textures is the key to a beautiful winter landscape. “You can have bronzes, reds, chartreuse, burgundy — it’s really neat,” she said.

For color, she suggested plants such as red-twig dogwood, which drop their leaves but reveal bright red stems in the winter, and the shrub Japanese kerria, which has yellow flowers in the spring and bright green stems in the winter. Another tree, seven-son flower, reveals gray-and-green-striped bark in the winter, while the coral-bark maple shows its red branches during the coldest months. Boxwoods and ilex also exhibit colorful stems in winter.

For texture, a combination of narrow plants like grasses with broadleaf plants like hostas can add interest.

“You can find all these interesting things, different corkscrew grass, that just have different shapes,” said DeFrancesco.

“There’s another shrub called Harry Lauder’s walking stick,” Manna said. “It has curly, contorted branches. It looks better and more interesting in the winter than it does in the spring.”

Winterberry holly provides color in the cold.
The stems of the red-twig dogwood stand out against the snow. Photo by Sandi Manna.
Harry Lauder’s walking stick is at its best in the colder months.
The peeling bark of a paperbark maple adds texture.