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Ideas to create a brighter winter garden

Oct 2nd, 2012 | Category: Growing

by Chuck McClung

Many people consider gardening a done deal after the leaves have fallen and a frost or snow occurs. True, many gardens look dull, drab and lifeless during the gray winter months. And sure, we may not want to be out there weeding in winter, and we likely won’t need to anyway. Nonetheless we can have just as much winter interest in our garden as for any other season.

Double flowering hellebore. PHOTO BY CHUCK McCLUNG

In our mild winter climate there are many winter blooming plants. There are even more plants that have colorful winter foliage, stems, and berries that can literally resurrect a dead winter garden.

A number of years ago, I noticed that while most winter gardens looked lifeless and dull, I would occasionally see a landscape or garden that really caught my eye. I immediately set out to understand what plants and features in these landscapes added that missing element to convert an otherwise gray garden.

Over the course of two winters I carried a spiral notebook with me wherever I went and wrote down every plant and garden feature that caught my eye. I wanted to find out what it takes to have a brighter winter garden, and what I discovered is that a garden with winter in mind looks good year all year long.

Must Haves

When I started recording my observations, I was quickly surprised by how many different plants caught my attention. The following five winter blooming superstars all happen to be very easy to grow and are staples of a Pacific Northwest winter garden.

Winter Heather: Blooming from January to Mother’s Day, every garden could use a little winter heather (Erica). Three plants spaced out along a driveway, for instance, can vastly brighten a winter landscape. They’re drought tolerant, and the deer won’t touch them. They are brittle, however, so avoid planting near the dog’s area or the basketball hoop.

Winter heather is a mounding, shrubby perennial with flowers ranging in color from white to all shades of pink. I’ve found that white winter heather caught my eye from greater distances than pink heather did.


Every year be sure to shear the spent flowers from your winter heater, usually some time in June, to ensure that nice, tidy, mounding growth habit. Also do any major pruning right after blooming. If you re-shape your winter heather right now, you’ll be cutting off this coming winter’s flower buds.

Gold Thread Cypress: Another plant is the Gold Thread Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’).  This rounded shrub has finger-like branches/leaves that absolutely glow during the dead of winter. The sharp, gold color just can’t be beat during cold, darker months. Use Gold Thread Cypress in front of a dark background like a brown fence, gray wall or other green foliage for best contrast in color.

Hellebores: It seems that each year lately, a few new varieties of Hellebores (Helleborus) are introduced to tempt the winter gardener. These shade tolerant, winter blooming perennials bloom in a variety of colors from pure white to green, yellow, pink, maroon and dark purple. Deer and slugs seem to avoid Hellebores.

The earliest blooming Hellebore, the Christmas Rose (H. niger), has pure white flowers starting in late fall. Watch for two newer prolific, large flowering varieties of Christmas Rose called ‘Jacob’ and ‘Josef Lemper’.

Late in winter the Lenten Rose (H. orientalis), blooms with large colorful and sometimes spotted flowers ranging from green to pink to purple. Many cultivars are available, and of these, double flowering varieties are still the rage in Hellebores right now. Many, many other fascinating varieties of Hellebores are out there for you to discover (try ‘Ivory Prince‘). Hellebores are the best winter blooming perennial for shade.

Pink Dawn Viburnum: Another spectacular winter bloomer is the Pink Dawn Viburnum (Viburnum bodnatense ‘Pink Dawn’). This shrub blooms with a continuous profusion of fragrant bright, light pink flowers from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day.

Richly textured, burgundy colored foliage contrasts nicely with variegated plants and light colored surroundings. One added feature is that if you rub the new leaves in the Spring, they smell like toasted sesame crackers; I’m not kidding, try it this spring.

Crocus: Crocus is a tough, easy to grow, late winter blooming bulb. Crocus has showy flowers that remain close to the ground, and even poke their heads out through the snow. Masses of purple, white, or yellow flowers are an absolute requirement for a brighter winter garden.

Use crocus under specimen trees, in rock gardens, containers, and in front of borders. Crocus is deer proof, and will naturalize for a fantastic winter show, year after year. In addition, crocus will tolerate sun or shade – every garden needs crocus.

A few more winter bloomers

Witch Hazel is a tremendously cold hardy shrub for sun or shade, reaching 8 to 10 feet tall and wide. During winter, its stems are dotted with crazy-looking, wiggly, star shaped yellow, orange or bronze flowers, some of which are fragrant.

Camellias represent a huge group of showy, winter blooming evergreen shrubs. Preferring shade, some Camellias start blooming before the holidays (C. ‘Yuletide’) while some varieties continue blooming through Spring (C. japonica).

Primroses and winter pansies/violas are cold hardy “annuals” for the winter garden. Use them in containers or in the landscape, and be sure to protect them from slugs. Rock Cress (Arabis, Aubrieta) and Candytuft (Iberis) are a couple of evergreen, rock garden perennials that create a carpet of blooms in late winter.

Colorful foliage, stems and berries

It is truly remarkable how colorful foliage can brighten the winter garden. From rich burgundy and cool blue to glowing gold and icy white, this foliage really makes the garden pop in winter when used properly.

For a wintry feel try silver foliage plants like Blue Spruce (there are dwarf varieties), English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Euphorbia, White Fir, Blue Festuca, Blue Oat Grass, and Dusty Miller. And then there’s ornamental cabbage and kale in snow whites, vivid pinks, and dusty purples for large, showy pots or in the ground; be sure to avoid wet situations.

Reddish-bronzy tones can be achieved with Nandina, Rhododendron ‘PJM’, Bergenia, Barberry (Berberis), or varieties of Summer heather (Calluna) like ‘Red Fred’ and ‘Wickwar Flame’.

Many plants with brightly colored, variegated foliage can save a gray winter garden. Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaity’ and Holly Leaf Osmanthus as well as variegated varieties of Azaleas, Pieris, Rhododendron, Holly (Ilex) and many conifers can really lighten the mood of the winter garden.

Colorful stems also brighten the winter landscape. The Coral Bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) has golden yellow fall leaf color with electric, coral red stems. Red- and yellow-twig dogwoods (Cornus) also have branches that intensify in color as winter approaches. Other trees with colorful bark/stems include: ‘Jacquemontii’ Birch, Willow (Salix), Paper Bark Maple (Acer griseum), Snake Bark Maple (Acer tegementosum).

Berries also bring cheer to the landscape during winter. For red berries, try trees and shrubs like Cotoneaster (many varieties and sizes), Skimmia, and Holly (Ilex), as well as groundcovers like Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos), Cotoneaster, and Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

For orange berries, try Fire Thorn (Pyracantha), or Mountain Ash (Sorbus). A good option for white berries is the native Snowberry (Symphoricarpos). For purple berries, you absolutely have to have the ‘Profusion’ Beauty Berry (Callicarpa), a shrub covered with clusters of small, strangely purple berries all winter long!

Using color

While winter color is great, it’s how we use the color to create contrast that really helps the plants stand out. Contrast creates dramatic effects, regardless of the season. As mentioned above, plant Gold Thread Cypress in front of a dark backdrop or juxtaposed with rich burgundy or bronzy tones. Silver and blue combinations lend a cool, wintry feel while lots of red berries amongst green and brown creates Christmas cheer. Use lighter shades next to darker shades. Mix up and spread out your evergreen shrubs with oval shaped leaves like Rhododendron, Azalea, Cammelia, Pieris, and Laurel. Interplant with a contrasting foliage texture like needle-leaves conifers, for instance.

Bright, light tones like white and yellow will stand out from farther away than blue or purple shades. These light tones, however, are lost up against a light colored background.

Closer to your house, select plants that contrast sharply with the house color (such as dark foliage against a light colored house). Farther from the house, use plants that tie in with the color of the house from eye-popping effects.

Aside from plants, other features of the landscape lend winter color. Try using strategically placed, brightly colored pergolas, arbors, containers, railings, and garden art to bring color and create contrast for the existing plants and features in the landscape.

Overall, try incorporating a few new winter interest plants this fall. Spread your plants throughout the landscape, where you will see them in the winter. Try a couple winter heather this year, but plant them away from your winter foliage and other winter bloomers. Remember, a garden with winter in mind looks good year round. Utilize contrast. You can have a brighter winter garden!

Chuck has a Master’s Degree in Botany and helps others solve their outdoor and indoor gardening dilemmas. He can be reached at orchidfruit@hotmail.com.

Published in the October 2012 issue of Grow Northwest.

2 Comments to “Ideas to create a brighter winter garden”

  1. Cathy Hathaway says:

    Loved your article. I’m new to the Pacific Northwest, having moved recently from Central TX. Gardening here is very different and I’m having a great time getting started. I appreciate your sharing winter gardening information. Thanks!

  2. cyndi haag says:

    This was perfect timing,I have a country cottage style garden that looks ike a graveyard right now…..any more suggestions for a white picket fence backdrop?

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