Winterberry fruit. Photo credit: Mike Masiuk
Does your winter garden resemble a black and white photograph? In spite of short, dark days and a blanket of snow, your landscape need not be drearily dull. January is an excellent time to evaluate your outdoor space for structural interest, texture, and color. You may beautify your winter garden with plants that provide food and cover to attract a diversity of wildlife. Here are some ideas for choosing trees and shrubs with attractive bark, eye-catching fruit, interesting sculptural forms, and evergreen hues that remind us that when the garden is covered in snow, life still exists there.
Trees and Shrubs with Interesting Bark
High on my wish list is the shrub called red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), with its bright red stems. I first noticed this beauty at Longwood Gardens where they grow the cultivar ‘Baileyi’. Other cultivated varieties are ‘Cardinal’ and ‘Arctic Fire’. For a bright splash of color, choose the coral bark willow (Salix alba ‘Britzensis’) that really stands out in the winter landscape. ‘Britzensis’ can grow into a big tree so it is most suitable for larger gardens. Other recommended trees are parrotia (Parrotia persica), Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), and European beech (Fagus sylvatica). Some plants have beautiful exfoliating (peeling) bark such as that of the river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’). My favorite, however, is the paperbark maple (Acer griseum), a small tree with cinnamon peeling papery bark. The Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) with its mottled brown, gold, and gray peeling bark has the added bonus of beautiful, camellia-like blooms in the summer.
Trees and Shrubs with Colorful Berries for Wildlife
Several bird species overwinter in Pennsylvania, including cardinals, goldfinches, woodpeckers, blue jays, and the white-breasted nuthatch. When we plant evergreens and native fruiting shrubs we provide them with safe, year-round protection from predators and bad weather, as well as needed winter food. Birds require lipids and fats to survive. I like to think I am doing my bit to restore critically needed habitat while adding beauty to my garden. Some plants that keep their fruit through winter, thus providing food for wildlife, are hawthorn (Crataegus spp), American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum), and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Birds feed on staghorn sumac late in the winter. I like this shrub for the beautiful structure of its red-fruiting spikes. Dark-eyed juncos, cedar waxwings, and robins love the blue berries of Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Other trees and shrubs with colorful fruit include cultivars of crabapple (Malus spp.) that have red or yellow fruit in the winter. Harvest Gold® and Golden Raindrops® are yellow-fruited crabapples. Consider native plants such as beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum), and winterberry (Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’). Winterberry, or deciduous holly, stands out in the landscape with its showy red berries. Unlike the evergreen holly, it sheds its leaves each autumn.
Evergreen Trees and Shrubs
Evergreens protect wildlife from the cold and wind. A suitable choice is American holly (Ilex opaca) with its glossy, green leaves and bright, red berries that draw songbirds. For clay soil, acceptable evergreens are arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and Austrian pine (Pinus nigra). White pine, Siberian spruce, and Oriental spruce are good choices. The Eastern hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) is a long-lived evergreen and the Pennsylvania state tree. They are very graceful, but be aware that they can be attacked by the hemlock woolly adelgid. With limited space, I chose a narrow evergreen tree, a weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Pendula’), for an area next to my pond. I love its fluid, drooping appearance.
Planning, Care, and Maintenance Tips
I have found that shrubs are easier to care for than perennial flowers as they don’t have to be weeded, divided, or deadheaded. Definition: a shrub is a woody plant that grows between the ground layer of your garden and the tree canopy. Shrubs are usually between 3 to 15 feet tall. They are multi-stemmed.
- As you design your landscape, consider what you see in nature. Arrange trees and shrubs in groups rather than planting them individually.
- Always take into account each plant’s size at maturity as well as its shape, color, and texture.
- Select plants that will thrive in your hardiness zone.
- When purchasing, read the plant label for the conditions needed and ask the nursery personnel for information.
- Conserve water by mulching under the tree or shrub canopy.
- Prune red-osier dogwood and willows (those are the ones with the colorful bark) annually, as young shoots have the brightest colors. Remove approximately one-third of the oldest stems in late winter.
- Rejuvenate shrubs occasionally by cutting the stems all the way back to the ground in early spring.
While waiting for the first blooms of snowdrops and hellebores to herald the end of the cold season, I enjoy my winter landscape. It has a beauty all its own. Take the time now to list some trees or shrubs with attractive bark, eye-catching fruit, interesting sculptural forms, and evergreen hues. Add them to the garden before next winter. They will not disappoint.