Putting Pizazz in a Winter Garden

Sidelined by winter, most idle gardeners seek consolation by thumbing through seed catalogues and dreaming of spring, their frozen gardens largely neglected and ignored. But a winter landscape can be almost as dynamic and interesting as a garden in the full flush of spring by introducing shrubs with brightly colored stems and trees with highly textured bark. Since spring is almost upon us, now is the time to plan for next winter’s wonderland before the weather warms and the garden beckons. 

Evergreen trees and shrubs work hard to brighten a monochromatic world, but there are many deciduous woody plants that put on their best show when stripped of their leaves. For instance, the stems of Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

or its sibling Yellow Twig Dogwood (C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’) will light up a drab plot especially when backlit by the sun. For maximum visual impact plant these sun-lovers in a clump and cut them back hard in late spring to encourage new stem growth. Native to the Northeast and hardy everywhere but the deep South (USDA Zones 2-8), these shrubs flourish in swampy conditions which makes them fine candidates to line the banks of a stream or anchor a marshy area.

Another shrub to brighten up a winter garden is the Japanese Rose, Kerria japonica, whose bright green stems are massed with clusters of yellow flowers in early spring.

Thriving in all climates except the coldest and the hottest (USDA Zone 4-9), it enjoys part shade and prefers moist well-drained soil. If it gets unruly with age, be brave and whack it to the ground after flowering. It will bounce back with renewed vigor.

In addition to shrubs, trees with brightly colored bark can pack a visual punch in a black and white world. If you are out on a winter walk and are stopped dead in your tracks by the spectacle of a copper-colored skeleton of a tree chances are you have spotted the Amur Chokecherry, Prunus maackii.

When young this Korean native sheds its bark in shaggy clumps, but as the tree ages the bark, slashed with lenticels, those breathing holes characteristic of all the cherries, ripens to a deep shiny cinnamon color. This handsome specimen tree does not tolerate heat and humidity (USDA Zones 2-6), and will be happiest in light shade and moist well-drained soil. Once its fragrant white flowers are finished, prune it lightly to maintain its graceful shape and increase its strength.

Another suggestion for color in the winter garden is the brilliant white Himalayan Birch.

Sure, white technically is not a color, but this tree is so brilliant it begs to be included in the list. Plant it in front of a group of evergreens for maximum visual impact. Preferring full sun to light shade and moist soil, this transplant from the mountains of Nepal thrives in colder temperatures (USDA Zones 4-7). Fast growing it tops out at about 40 feet, although its upright delicate oval shape rarely overpowers any garden but the very smallest. A choice cultivar is ‘Silver Shadow’ bred specifically for its milky white bark.

No discussion of trees with colorful bark is complete without mention of the graceful Coral Bark Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’).  

Although its fall leaf color is not as flashy as many of its brethren, once it loses its leaves its brilliant orange bark more than atones for its ho-hum autumn display. Hardy in USDA Zones 5-8, this stately Japanese maple can take full sun in northern climes but plant it in dappled afternoon sun south of the Mason-Dixon line. It will be happiest if you work plenty of organic material into a slightly acidic soil. For high drama in the garden pair the Coral Bark Maple with its bright green bark cousin A. palmatum ‘Aoyagi’.

While a Coral Bark Maple can jolt the insipid winter garden to life, many of its close relatives are noted not for their color but for their spectacular bark texture. Prized for its winter “wow” factor the Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) sheds its chestnut bark in wide curly strips to reveal a mosaic of earth tones.

As an added bonus its dark bluish green leaves turn a vivid red in fall, a color that deepens when planted in moist rich soil. Not fussy about light conditions this slow growing beauty can tolerate full shade to partial sun and is hardy in USDA Zones 5-8. Although it may be difficult to track down because of propagation difficulties, the rewards from planting a Paperbark Maple are worth the search.

Easier to find commercially but no less dramatic is the River Birch (Betula nigra) whose multi-colored bark peels off in large scales revealing shades of salmon, cream and brown.

As its common name implies this 20 foot native thrives in the moist acidic soil of riverbanks and prefers full sun but will tolerate light shade. Hardy in all but the coldest climates (USDA Zones 4-9) the visual impact of the River Birch is heightened when planted in clumps. Although its autumn color is muted like most of the birches its striking display of exfoliating bark more than compensates for its fall modesty.

A personal favorite, Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) puts on a show in all four seasons, not just winter.

In the coldest months its stunning gray bark peels away to reveal patches of orange and brown in a pattern similar to camouflage. Late spring and early summer bring a burst of creamy camellia-like flowers with yellow centers and crinkled edges.

Once the flowers have faded and the nights grow cooler, the foliage of the Japanese Stewartia changes from a fuzzy green to a brilliant orange-red, and closes out the year by dropping its leaves leaving the beauty of its bark exposed once again. The Stewartia must have moist but not soggy soil – a suggestion: hang a water-filled Gator Tree Bag around its trunk until it gets established – and plant it in light shade in the south and full sun in the north (Hardy to USDA Zones 5-8).

In For those who garden in the deep South or the far West (USDA Zones 7-9) you are so lucky; you can grow the spectacular Crepe (or Crape) Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) which relishes the heat of your summers.

When the garden is looking long in the tooth during the dog days of July and August, the Crepe Myrtle bursts on the scene with a dazzling display of ruffled flowers which range from white to purple; the most common colors are vivid reds and sizzling hot pinks.

Although typically chosen for its profusion of flowers in summer, the Crepe Myrtle’s handsome striated brown trunk, highly visible in winter, makes it a prime choice for year-round interest. This small tree must have full sun, and although it requires moist soil when first planted, once it has settled in it can tolerate dry conditions which makes it ideal for all areas but the high desert.

Even though winter is no gardener’s favorite time of year, the garden can gain a new life in the darkest of days with just a little planning and some imagination. Once you have savored the beauty of a garden designed around textures and colors that shine in winter, you will never again pine for the sight of the first robin.

Plant Sources:

Monrovia Nursery


Nature Hills


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