Create a winter wonderland in your garden


Katharine Fletcher

When snow blankets our gardens, it’s time for the architectural qualities—shapes, colours and textures—of plants to come into their own. Moreover, wildlife must survive outdoors by finding both food and shelter during the season of bitter winds, plunging temperatures, snowstorms, freezing rain—and brilliant sunshine.

What architectural qualities contribute maximum interest to our frozen landscape? And, what plants best serve wildlife?

Whether it’s a chubby evergreen or the branches of a deciduous tree or shrub, shape adds interest to the winter garden. Limbs cast varied silhouettes on the snow, from the stately bulk of a pine, cedar, fir or spruce, to the filigree shadows created by oaks, maples and other trees, as well as or honeysuckles, mock oranges and shrubs.

Weeping mulberry and corkscrew hazel shrubs have delightfully twisted, slender limbs and stunted stature, which add year-round interest to gardens.

Other plants have very specific shapes either naturally or when pruned. Old-fashioned topiaries are fascinating to create, for instance, where dense evergreens such as yews or cedars are trimmed into animal shapes. Remember photos of Victorian gardens boasting menageries of elephants, peacocks and horses? Note to self: try creating a topiary next year!

Not only do fruits add colour, so does bark. Consider white (silver) birch with its gleaming, sometimes chalky-looking “skin,” or the shiny, dark-chestnut-brown of young pin or choke cherry trees. Weeping willows sport flexible, drooping, bright golden-yellow or chartreuse branches that sway in any murmur of breeze.

Shrubs? Dogwoods feature glorious, often crimson stems. Consider the Midwinter Fire Stem Dogwood. Its stems are a brilliant red throughout winter

And the berries! Consider vermillion clusters of rowan (mountain ash) trees or of deciduous holly (aka winterberry), or the scarlet, chubby (but spreading) hips of rosa rugosa varieties of extremely hardy roses.

Trees such as shagbark hickory and ironwood feature stringy-looking bark, which forms in long, shaggy-looking vertical “strips.” Add more interest (and varied height) with burning bush, a deciduous shrub named for its scarlet leaves come autumn. However, after these drop, the bark suddenly presents its very own drama because the corky cambium covering branches and twigs is deeply ridged, or winged.

Food for wildlife
Birds are welcome in most gardens—but how can we attract them with plants, not just via supplemental feeding stations?

Choose native shrubs that fruit, such as sumach, with its fuzzy red “candle” clusters of berries, or trees such as ash with their drooping bunches of seed “keys.” Flowers such as coneflowers, teasels and phlox offer nourishment throughout the winter, too.

Shelter for wildlife
Instead of cutting back stalks of flowers such as phlox and climbing plants like clematis, leave them be. Chickadees and goldfinches at one of my feeders, for instance, find shelter among two clematis vines that entwine their way up the arbour from which my feeders hang. And, throughout winter, the twisted “topknots” of clematis seedpods add interest to the garden.

And let’s not forget ornamental grasses. Long after they’ve died, many add structure and pom-pom-like shape to the garden. Meanwhile, their drooping leaves offer shelter for critters passing by…

Winter in Canada? Sure it’s freezing cold and snowy. But our gardens can bustle with life, form and colour!

Katharine Fletcher is a gardens columnist, freelance writer and author who enjoys her organic gardens at her farm Spiritwood, in the Pontiac region of West Quebec.


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