Plants for the Winter Garden

When designing a garden during spring, summer, or fall, it is sometimes easy to forget what your garden will look like in winter.  But since this cold and sometimes dreary season is three months long, it makes sense to incorporate some plants that will perform for us while other plants are taking the winter off.

There are several things to consider when designing for winter, such as forming views that will be appreciated from indoors, or creating focal points with structures such as benches or arbors, but I am going to focus on plant selection.  Winter plants can be selected for a variety of reasons, including evergreen foliage, interesting bark, berries, winter color, and seed heads.

Native Evergreens

American HollyBecause of their size, evergreen trees are often difficult to fit into residential landscapes.  Among these, American Holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are native to our area. Although these trees can all reach over 80’ tall and 40’ wide over time, they are all lovely trees if placed where they have room to grow.  A warning to those of us who love Eastern Hemlock though, a pest called wooly adelgid is a major concern, and trees may need to be sprayed with insecticide or horticultural oil to control infestations.

Some smaller evergreen options are Foster’s Holly (Ilex x fosterii), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), and Arborvitae.  Foster’s Holly is a cross between Ilex opaca x Ilex cassine.  Since both of these hollies are native species and hybrids occur naturally, I would include Foster’s Holly in my native plant list.  It grows to about 30’ tall.

Eastern Red Cedar is an important food source for birds like robins and cedar waxwings.  It is a wonderful tree, but you may want to avoid it if you have apples on your property, because it is a host for cedar apple rust.

Arborvitae is often overused in the landscape, with boring rows of these plants forming ubiquitous screens along edges of properties.  Mixed in with other plants in a border though, this tree can be very useful.  Eastern Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) is native to our area but a favorite of deer, therefore, Western Arborvitae (Thuja plicata) is often used in its place.

Native evergreen shrubs include Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra), rhododendron, Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and Doghobble (leucothoe sp.).  Of these, the Inkberry Holly is the most versatile, being very adaptable to different growing conditions.  The next three plants; Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, and Leucothoe, are lovely, but more exacting culturally.  They require rich, acidic, well-drained soil, and part shade.

Along with evergreen trees and shrubs, consider some evergreen plants on the ground layer. Christmas Fern, (Polystichum aristichoides), Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea), and our beautiful Allegheny Pachysandra  (Pachysandra procumbens) all provide green throughout the year.

Native Trees with Interesting Bark

Shagbark Hickory

When walking through wild places in winter, one plant stands out above all others, the American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)While the bark of most trees crack as the tree gets older, the older bark of the sycamore peels, revealing white, newer bark underneath.  This gives the tree a very dramatic, mottled appearance, especially evident in winter when there are no leaves on the trees.  Sycamores naturally occur along streams, which makes them a great choice for areas that are wet, or in soils that are compacted.

Another tree with interesting bark is the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata).  As the name implies, this hickory’s bark hangs in rough scale-like patches along the trunk, creating a very shaggy appearance.  This type of bark is also a great hiding place for numerous creatures, such as the mourning cloak butterfly, and you are apt to see birds like a nuthatch, or brown creeper inspecting the bark for something to eat.

In addition to these two trees, we of course have to include River Birch (Betula nigra) with its tan, peeling bark, and Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea). Remember that Red-twig Dogwoods can grow quite large (6-8’ tall by 8-10’ wide), and since the red twigs occur on new stems, it is often cut back to about 6” in early spring to control size and maintain the striking red color.

Native Plants with Berries

Winter King Hawthorn

Besides providing color in the winter landscape, plants with berries are a food source for birds and other animals at a lean time of year.  The berries of many of these plants are not palatable to birds until after several freezes soften them, which is why they are not eaten earlier in the year.  Among these winter gems are Winter King Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’), Crabapple (Malus coronaria cv.), Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), and Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica).  Fruit color can range from bright red, to copper, to bright lavender, to white in these plants.

Northern Bayberry is an interesting and underused native landscape plant.  The dark berries are coated with wax, giving them a white appearance in winter.  They are relished by birds, and can also be melted down to make bayberry candles, producing that distinctive bayberry scent.  These plants are often found along the coast and are very salt tolerant, so they are a great choice for along roads where salt is used.

When choosing cultivars of these plants, keep in mind that smaller fruit is easier for birds to eat, and larger fruit is usually showier for humans.  And remember, with hollies and bayberries, you will need both a male and a female plant in order to get fruit.  Ask your local nursery expert which male holly is the correct pollinator plant for the female cultivar that you choose.

Native Plants with Interesting Seed Heads

Black-eyed SusansAnother great way to add interest to your winter landscape is to include plants with interesting seed heads or plants that look nice when they are dried.  Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is a fabulous four-season plant whose large panicles of dried flowers turn from creamy white in summer to an antique pink in late summer and finally a lovely tawny brown in winter.

The dark seed-heads of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) if left standing, not only provide food for finches, they look terrific by providing structure and contrast in your garden after a snow.

Milkweed Seed HeadOther plants to consider are our native grasses, such as Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Purpletop (Tridens flavus), and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), as well as Milkweed (Asclepias sp.) which has interesting seed pods that are sometimes used in decorating, or in dried flower arrangements.


So if you find yourself yearning to get outside in the winter months, why not design a winter garden, where you can enjoy the outdoors all year long?