Ask Elaine: Winter Interest in the Garden

How can I get some winter interest in my garden? It’s looking a little stark and bare.


Dear Rory,

It seems as though you have lots of deciduous plants on your property, perhaps shrubs and herbaceous perennials, that may look dead but are simply dormant.

In winter, a garden relies less on color and more on form, structure and texture for interest.  We consider a few winter horticultural elements when landscaping at Laurelwood Arboretum: evergreen foliage, bark, berries, plant habit or silhouette, and movement.

First, there is nothing wrong with deciduous plants in the landscape in winter. Imagine a beech tree, or maple or oak tree against the western sky, the dark silhouette against a backdrop of a fiery sunset. Shrubs should be balanced with a large group of lightweight deciduous shrubs and a smaller selection of high visual weight evergreen shrubs. Laurel Pond has a nice selection of plants around the pond and along the sloped garden area around the pond.

I think that evergreens are essential in the winter garden, be they needled or broadleaved. Some properties don’t have room for full-sized pine, spruce, fir, hemlock and yew trees but dwarf forms of these needled evergreens are available. Find samples in our South Rock Garden. False cypress and junipers are also popular cone-bearing evergreens. There is a lovely row of junipers planted along a slope on Ridge Road. An exotic Cryptomeria is located in the Native Plant Garden. Broadleaved evergreens include boxwood, rhododendron, evergreen azaleas, mountain laurel, leucothoe, Mahonia, andromeda and holly. As a former rhododendron breeding nursery, there are over 300 rhododendrons on site. We have hundreds of boxwood (notice them on Brook Road), and Mahonia and holly can be found in the Native Plant Garden. Even groundcovers can be evergreen: periwinkle/vinca, pachysandra, ivy and Ajuga. Consider gold-needled evergreens (false cypress and junipers) and blue-needled evergreens (junipers and spruce). I would like to add more of these plants into Laurelwood Arboretum’s landscape as replacements for our troubled two-needled pines.

Bark can be beautiful, with color and texture. White bark (white, canoe and paper birches along the banks of Laurel Pond), and yellow and red twigged dogwood shrubs (Native Plant Garden) add striking color. Bark that peels includes crape myrtle and river birch (both along Fairway). Flaky and patchy bark can be seen in Kousa dogwood, Stewartia (Ridge Road), sycamore and fringe tree (Native Plant Garden). An evergreen hedge, fence or wall is a great backdrop for showing-off colorful and exfoliating bark.

Birds eat the soft, juicy berries in the landscape first, like the fruit on Kousa dogwood, crabapple (near Laurel Pond) and hawthorn (across from the Gazebo). When times are lean (January and February), the fruit that the birds turned up their beaks at have softened, maybe fermented into something tasty. Some samples of berried plants include winterberry holly (Brook Road), English and American holly, snowberry (on Fairway), beautyberry (Native Plant Garden), bayberry, barberry, firethorn, cotoneaster and a few viburnum species. 

Striking winter silhouettes can be exhibited in a few ways: weeping, and horizontal or contorted branching.  A weeping Higan cherry is just off Cedar Hill. There are weeping forms of pine, spruce and hemlock and we have them at Laurelwood. Native dogwoods have tiered horizontal branches, as do redbud (near the 1st Bridge), white and pin oaks and rockspray cotoneaster. Contorted branching is an attribute of Harry Lauder’s walking stick and corkscrew willow. You only need one of each of these unusual and dramatic plants in the landscape.

For movement in the garden, look at our collection of ornamental grasses planted along the Back 40. The plants show off feathery dried plumes and upright clumps of swaying branches. We will cut the grasses down to the ground in early April to make room for a season of new growth. 

Enjoy the winter landscape and Happy New Year!

Elaine Fogerty
Executive Director



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