Colour and texture bring life to a winter garden

Manor Park gardener Christina Keys shines some light on the many appealing qualities of the garden in winter

By Manor Park Chronicle

The seedheads of near-native purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) provide added texture and structure to the late fall and early winter garden. Photo: Christina Keys

“Sparkling and shimmering, frosted by the earth’s breath itself, you’ll become a winter gardener in a heartbeat, desperate for the first cold autumn night.”
– Garden designer and author Benjamin Vogt, 2022

We gardeners may spend the winter dreaming and planning for the gardening year ahead, but even during the season’s darkest days, the garden can have something to offer. A garden designed with winter in mind can be full of atmosphere and beauty, and can be enjoyed all the way through the winter by people and wildlife alike.

Designing for winter includes a focus especially on colour and texture and the key architectural features of shrubs and trees.

Keeping colour in mind, designing your garden can mean planting shrubs with beautifully coloured stems or ones that hold onto their brightly-coloured berries. Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a classic shrub that has conspicuous red stems year-round plus is native to the Ottawa region with white berries and red foliage in fall.

Other shrubs to consider that keep their berries through the winter for birds to eat in late winter or early fall include: winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a native form of holly, highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), well-loved by cardinals, staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) which grows around Beechwood Cemetery in abundance, and black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), a favourite of blue jays and cedar wax wings.

Designing with texture in mind can mean including trees and shrubs that have attention-grabbing bark. The outstandingly beautiful peeling bark of paper birch (Betula papyrifera) provides contrast, especially against a red brick house or an evergreen tree, as well as textural interest.

Delay cutting back perennials

Waiting to cut back your perennial garden can also provide late fall and early winter interest until the first heavy snow falls and sometimes beyond. Dark brown seedheads dusted with snow provide textural beauty for us as well as food for birds. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a unique native species that flowers in late fall and often holds onto its thread-like yellow flowers into early winter.

At the other end of the season, planning for the very earliest of spring flowers can also add interest to late winter. Consider serviceberries (Amelanchier sp.), black elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), more dogwoods (Cornus sp.), and, in particular, willows such as pussy willow (Salix discolor) and sandbar willow (Salix exigua).

There may not be much for the gardener to do in winter except winter sowing in late fall or early winter, but with a bit of planning, the garden can be as enthralling in winter as at the height of summer.
Check out Ontario Native Plants or Ferguson Tree Nursery in Kemptville to source all of the plants mentioned above.

Gardens have plenty to offer through winter if you focus on colour and texture. Common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) holds onto its seedheads through winter. Photo: Christina Keys
Black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia hirta) seedheads provide added texture and structure to the late fall and early winter garden. Photo: Christina Keys