Master tips from a Master Gardener (9/15/16)

Bill Koellner · Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Planning is the first step to an effective winter garden, thus the winter garden can be a place of beauty.

During fall we plan on putting the garden to bed, and they go inside until spring. Good planning during the rest of the year can make the fourth season of the year more enjoyable for you and your garden visitors. The fourth season of the year yields a different beauty than the other three seasons. While there are a wide variety of colors during the spring, summer and fall, the winter landscape is more subtle.

My backyard has shades of tan, brown, and buff, but I also have bright spots of color coming from berries and colored stems. My winter garden’s beauty comes from the shapes of plants, particularly the ornamental grasses which add structure to the winter garden and various trees and shrubs. My viburnums and lilac bushes add beauty with the arrangement of their bare branches, partial leaves covering the plant enhanced by a coating of snow.

Benefits to planning for the winter season are food sources and cover for birds and animals. As the birds eat berries from my plants, they may diminish in appearance if the attractive part of the plant is eaten.

In your garden planning, it is a good idea to have a number of different plants that perform in all seasons, so there is food for wildlife and continuing beauty for the gardener. Plants that perform in winter also provide some flowers and interesting foliage during the other three seasons.

Looking at the garden in all seasons will help with the planning of the winter garden.

If the first choice for a winter garden is a shrub and there is no room, consider an ornamental grass or perennial. There are many plants from which to choose and the choices have to be practical, just as they are during the growing season. Also consider these plants as windbreaks for your home and the backyard visitors’ home.

While considering the plants for winter, you must also consider the plants during the normal growing season, in that, does the plant require full-sun plant, be sure it is grown in a full-sun site.

Consider the elevation in your yard, and ask yourself, does it flood or is it low and rain or melting snow collects. This will cause the roots to become overall saturated or potentially rot. Get to know the garden at this time of year so an appropriate plant can be chosen or, if the location is poor, it can be avoided or improved.

Giving plants good care so that they go into winter in good condition is also important. Plants that are intended to provide winter beauty must be given good care throughout the growing season.

If these plants are neglected during the growing season, it is unlikely that they will look good in the fall. If they look worn out late in the season, they will not be able to add beauty to the garden in winter. Keep your plants pruned, remove dead or dying branches, or just remove old, worn out plants to keep the area looking fresh.

Winter may, however, undermine the best planning efforts. A heavy snowfall or ice storm in the early part of the winter may damage some of the plants that give the garden texture, such as ornamental grasses.

Do you have points of interest in your yards? It is wise to select a variety of plants that provide different types of summer and winter interest. If the garden contains plants with bright berries, too many ornamental grasses can detract from the overall look. However, heavy snow load may be easier to accent the combination of grasses and plants with berries.

Most landscape plants gain their appreciation during the growing season, but some plants reveal their beauty in winter. Swaying flower heads, striking bark colors and flaky texture, contorted branches, glistening fruits and snowy caps of evergreens are some notable features of the plants that bring life and interest to the cold winter landscape. Widely used as background filler in the landscape, ornamental grasses excel as a specimen plant in winter. Its tall flowering seed head that spills forward and sways in the winter wind is an eye-capturing window view. Also, these grasses offer food and habitat for wildlife in winter.

Common ornamental grasses of winter interest are Karl Foerster’s feather reed grass, northern sea oats, silver feather Miscanthus, switch grass, Indian grass, prairie drop seed and little bluestem. Ornamental grasses bloom in a variety of shapes and textures.  Cassian is a type of fountain grass that has a small fox tail-looking flower.  In fact, all fountain grasses have a similar flower.  One popular grass is Adagio, which is a type of Miscanthus, and has a small, wispy, tassel-like bloom.   One of the most popular of all ornamental grasses is the Pampas grass.  It's easily recognized by its large feather duster flower.

With such a large variety of grasses, there are plenty of options to find the one you like best for your landscape.  Make sure they are planted in a sunny area with loose, well-drained soil.  It will likely go dormant in the winter time, as most grasses do, so feel free to trim off the old brown foliage to ready the plant for new spring growth.  In the meantime, enjoy the many blooms of ornamental grass in the area.

Use of some common perennials such as Astilbe, Bluebeard (Caryopteris), Purple coneflower (Echinacea), and showy sedum (Sedum spectabile) have interesting seed heads that persist into winter.

Woody plants can also add to winter beauty. Some have colored stems or bark. These include Paperbark maple, river birch, and several species of dogwood.

For additional color, select plants that have persistent berry-like fruits. These include Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and winterberry (llex verticillata) for red fruit, beautyberry (Callicarpa species) (top right) with bright purple fruit, and crabapples (top left) and viburnums (fruit color varies by species and cultivar).

Do not think that the winter is not a gardening month, because if you choose the right plants, it can be as showy and a summer garden. Remember, that during the spring and summer, you do not see many birds, but during the winter, birds look for cover and food, and add a dimension to your yard.
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